A tactical embarrassment
Nobody comes out of the leaders’ debates farce in good shape, argues Paul Demarty
That Ed Miliband, eh? He’s useless! He looks like Wallace out of Wallace and Gromit. His teeth are too big. He forgets his lines. But it gets worse: apparently, he is also terrifying, the living principle of mortal fear - half-Jason Vorhees, half-Shoggoth.
How else can we explain the obvious reluctance of the prime minister to sit down in front of a television camera and debate with the Labour leader? Is there some deep-seated trauma in David Cameron’s childhood, brought to the surface whenever anyone makes a mess out of a bacon sandwich? I think we should be told.
It all started innocently enough - with a proposed timetable for debates that would see the three main party leaders joined by the UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage; then going it alone; and, finally, a showdown between Cameron and Miliband alone, the two realistic candidates for prime minister, whatever deals would be necessary to get them safely into Number 10.
Cameron, it turned out, was not happy: surely this was unfair to the Greens! (Perhaps he envies Andrew Neil and Nick Ferrari their opportunities for Natalie Bennett bashing.) So they were added, and then the nationalists; there were now to be two seven-way debates, and then a Cameron-Miliband bout. Even this was not good enough - what about the Democratic Unionists? - until we arrived at a situation where Cameron was only happy to do one 90-minute, seven-way debate. That’s about 10 minutes speaking time each.
Cameron blames the media for being disorganised, which is plainly risible. The relevant TV stations have been as organised as circumstances allowed: the relevant circumstances, in this case, being sustained recalcitrance on the part of the prime minister. No doubt chagrined by Number 10’s spurious blame-shifting, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky have made it clear that the debates will continue with or without Cameron, perhaps even with an empty chair where the prime minister ought to be.
Initially, speculation hinged on the possibility that Cameron was unwilling to face off with Farage; even the seven-way debate wheeze could be read this way. Now it is indisputable: it is Miliband who yellows Cameron’s belly.
It is a fact upon which the Labour leader has alighted with unseemly enthusiasm. Cameron “says this election is all about leadership, all about the choice between him and me, and, when it comes to a debate between him and me, he’s running scared,” he told a conference of the Scottish Labour Party. He has now proposed to enshrine the televised debate in law. All in all, his kitchen cabinet are doing their level best to make sure this one runs and runs.
As entertaining as the thought is, of course, it is not exactly cold-blooded terror that motivates Cameron, but a cynical calculation, which like all such things takes the form of a cost/benefit analysis. The cost is obvious: for a week or so, Cameron has looked like a bit of an idiot. The benefit is nothing more than the avoidance of surprises.
In the end, it comes down to the popular media image of Ed Miliband we repeated at the outset of this article: he is gormless, bumbling, bungling, and lacks the proper gravitas to represent Britain on the world stage. It is highly likely that most of this image is false: Miliband is not an idiot, and his front-row seat for the 13-year period of Labour government, as an advisor to Gordon Brown and then an MP and minister, should surely have prepared him well enough for greater things in the corridors of power.
So how can such a manifestly implausible picture of Miliband become common-sensical? In this respect, it is gratifying that the most public functions of media organisations are arrogated to the editorial departments. The Ed Miliband with a bacon sandwich leaking onto his shirt is an edited Miliband. Only his lowlights are surfaced. In reality TV, this is known as the ‘loser edit’: a participant in X-factor or whatever is shown in such a light from the beginning of an episode as to foretell his ejection from proceedings.
A 90-minute-plus live broadcast, for obvious reasons, is not amenable to a ‘loser edit’. One can be achieved if all participants other than the loser - from the other panelists to the producers, to the work-experience boy - are in on it (the great recent example being Nick Griffin’s Question time lynching). Even Sky, however, is bound by complex impartiality rules, especially during election season; so that one’s out.
The best-case scenario for Cameron is that he ends up where he started - looking marginally more prime ministerial than Miliband. The worst case is that he is caught on the hoof; no, he is not likely to suffer a Natalie Bennett meltdown, but TV debates yield victories on points, not knockouts. Incumbents are at greater risk of being put on the spot, thanks to their over-reliance on cooked books and crooked statistics to prove they are doing a good job. Challengers like Miliband have no record to defend, or at least only a more distant one.
Interestingly enough, both times in living memory when the reverse has occurred - a leader of the opposition refusing a challenge to debate from a sitting prime minister - it was, first of all, Margaret Thatcher turning down Jim Callaghan; and then Tony Blair turning down John Major. Both Thatcher and Blair were cruising to victory, their opponents in disarray. These debates above all favour underdogs, those who are not the anointed heroes of the hour: the chance is theirs to overturn hostile public opinion, and theirs to screw up.
For these reasons, we are not enormously confident that Team Miliband will manage to turn this into a running embarrassment for Cameron. In 1997, John Major’s team hired a jobbing actor to follow Blair around, dressed as a chicken, to ram home the point. It does not seem to have done Blair any harm. Indeed, Times columnist Daniel Finkelstein - then a Tory apparatchik - recalls:
Unfortunately, the more the actor saw of Mr Blair, the more he liked him. And so the idea took hold that the chicken might, as it were, cross the road. This would have been a PR disaster even greater than having involved ourselves in such a stupid stunt in the first place. So I was given a job. I was to have lunch with the chicken on a regular basis and keep him onside. I proved myself worthy of the trust placed in me (January 14).
Just as well for Major; losing the chicken would have provided one great image of his Quixotic quest to retain power.
Things are different this time in many respects: the election is poised on a knife-edge, with Labour and the Tories sparring for a miserable one-point lead, and a hung parliament now more or less expected (hence the other major story in British politics at the moment: the possibility of a Labour/SNP deal). Should broadcasters press ahead with putting an empty chair in Cameron’s place, a large TV audience will be reminded at least three times of Cameron’s reticence.
For this to really stick, however, Miliband would need the press onside. The business with the bacon butty, etc, is proof that he has not got it. The capitalist media - and, by extension, the capitalist class - do not want a Labour government, or at least not one led by ‘Red’ Ed. Tory brinkmanship over Europe and the union might have persuaded important voices to come out for a Blairite, but not somebody pursuing a core-vote strategy, however weak-tea it may be.
Why, then, does he not tack away from reliance on the press? You do not need an elaborate Marxist theory of the media to understand that he is on a hiding to nothing here. Yet what else is there? Miliband inherited a Labour Party that was already depleted and hollowed out, with the wider labour movement in scarcely better shape. The means by which hearts and minds could be won without the filtration of the capitalist media were no longer available.
As a professional bourgeois politician, rebuilding that institutional strength is hardly on his agenda - it would, first of all, remove some control from his central apparatus and, secondly, take longer than a single parliamentary term. With potential wipeout looming in Scotland, Labour is perhaps about to get a lot weaker. All the mainstream parties are, likewise, hollowed out. By contrast, the transmutation of British politics into a media spectacle has gathered pace, culminating in … televised leaders’ debates.
This suits capitalism down to a tee - to a point. Yet it is not clear that the media are an adequate replacement for mass-membership organisations with any life to them. As capitalist enterprises, the press empires are motivated by short-termism: a short-termism which has given us a great scare over Scottish independence, and - should Cameron scrape through - even a referendum on European Union membership. The media’s increasingly pre-eminent role as kingmaker between Labour and Tories has produced its opposite - the growth of ‘outsider’ parties, from the Greens to Ukip, to the Scottish National Party.
The leaders’ debates farce, then, makes all participants look brittle and weak.