20 November 2019 | ANALYSIS
The main trouble with last night’s Leaders’ Debate on ITV was that there wasn’t one.
Both party leaders did a good job of getting their message out there, without a doubt. With that said, though, the Wolves take on yesterday’s event is that no actual debate occurred. Neither of the two leaders ever really engaged with one another (one terse handshake aside), and nor to any particular degree with the audience. While improvements have been made over the formatting used previously – for the Conservative Party leadership debate, for example – there was little in the way of substance to shift the mindset of individual voters.
A political debate should involve the participants in discussing each other’s views, and not merely their own. Discussion, of course, does not by any means necessarily lead to agreement, but we would have found it interesting to hear Boris Johnson give a reasoned critique of Jeremy Corbyn’s overall vision for leading the country – and, by all accounts, vice versa. Instead, all we heard were selected soundbites designed to appeal to each leader’s own supporters, but not with a view to convincing those who start out from a different position.
The debate was widely held to be ‘a draw’ by political pundits later in the evening and in the early morning today. Insofar as one could say that neither party leader did noticeably worse than the other in terms of appealing to their own core electorate, this is probably true. But what we did not see yesterday evening was any reason why a lifelong Labour voter should decide to vote Conservative this time round – or, indeed, vice versa.
We at Wolves would like to see a format in which the individual leaders are given a succession of topics and asked to discuss these among themselves. They should be speaking to one another, and not to a presenter or indeed to the audience directly. The audience should by no means be excluded, however; after a few minutes, they should be allowed to intervene by raising specific points for the leaders to then discuss in more detail.
Both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn have specific skills in engaging an audience by addressing them directly – and both know how to deploy these to great effect. But we nonetheless find ourselves wondering just what Boris Johnson might say to Jeremy Corbyn about why he believes so strongly in free enterprise – and what Jeremy might say to Boris about why he believes that all public institutions and provisions should be owned and run by the state.
This would not have to replicate the theatrics of the weekly head-to-head that is Prime Minister’s Questions – everyone knows that these now take place largely for the sake of the respective leaders’ fellow Members on the green benches. Instead, a leadership debate set up for an audience of the wider public should be closer to the conversations that someone with right-wing views might have with a left-winger in their local pub.
It would be interesting and different – a good deal more challenging for the party leaders, and a good deal more engaging for the programme’s viewership. We hope the major broadcasters are listening.