General election 2015

Leaders’ debate and narratives

The leaders’ debate on ITV two days ago proved to be far more interesting and entertaining than I had anticipated. The narratives of the debate currently being spun furiously by the different parties are crucial, much more so than the debate itself. There were no absolute clear winners and losers in terms of debate, in that no one did a Nick Clegg (the 2010 version), and no one made a gaffe that cost him or her very dear, mainly because it was a crowded field, allowing everyone to claim that their leader had won, but in my view Nicola Sturgeon performed the strongest and is likely to have shored up the SNP support north of the border. Between the Conservatives and Labour, my guess is that Labour would be feeling slightly more nervous in the aftermath, because the leaders of the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Greens, who are more likely to take votes away from Labour, managed to do well, or to put it another way Ed Miliband did not outshine everyone. David Cameron would have been happy with the crowded field, which meant he did not really have to engage directly with Nigel Farage in debate.

For the most part, the participants in the debate seemingly adopted a defensive approach, appealing to their core supporters or bases with their stock policies and lines that will be repeated until voters become comatose or can recite them in sleep, with the exception of Ms Sturgeon, who made an overture to voters who cannot vote for the SNP, that is to say other parts of the UK for a broader progressive alliance. The debate could have been tricky for Ms Sturgeon. The SNP has been doing extremely well in the polls in Scotland, and a weak performance from her or a stellar performance from Mr Miliband could have jeopardized that strong position over Labour. She played the outsider whilst being the first minister in Scotland: something that she and her predecessor Alex Salmond have been quite adept at for some time. As SNP candidates are standing only in Scotland, she could have constructed a narrative purely for Scottish consumption, but instead she kept a door open for future involvement in the governance of the UK.

The Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, unlike Ms Sturgeon, concentrated her remarks on Wales, and challenged Mr Miliband on Labour’s record. Rather like in Scotland, the political centre of gravity is to the left of centre in Wales, so for Plaid Cymru to succeed, it will have to appeal to the generally Labour-leaning electorate. Unlike the SNP, which may well become the third-largest party in the next Westminster parliament therefore may end up in the position to make and break the government depending on the outcome of the election, Plaid Cymru’s ambitions can only be more restricted and realistic: to have a clear voice in Westminster speaking up for the interests of Wales. It will be interesting to see if Mr Wood’s performance was well-received in Wales, and if it will have any measurable impact on the polls and indeed the result.

Natalie Bennett representing the Greens did a lot better than I had expected, especially after a terrible radio interview for which she was utterly unprepared and there were moments of really awkward silence. The Greens would have been the clear anti-austerity party, had the SNP and Plaid Cymru not been represented in the debate, but because they shared the platform, it may be argued that the Green Party’s distinctiveness was lost. At the same time, it has also shielded Ms Bennett from scrutiny about the Greens’ fiscal plans, because of the common anti-austerity platform with the SNP and Plaid Cymru. In contrast to the SNP and Plaid Cymru, it is very unlikely that the Greens will win that many seats, but that is not to say the votes for the Greens are unimportant: the big question is from whom the Greens will take votes, and what impact that will have on the other parties with realistic chances of winning the seats.

The three parties – the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Greens – formed a common anti-austerity bloc against the Westminster consensus on austerity, which would be attractive to many voters, especially those who lean towards Labour or the Liberal Democrats. Mr Sturgeon called for a modest spending increase, Ms Wood a better deal for Wales, and Ms Bennett referred to many policies which were vague and would not be cheap: it remained unclear how these policies were going to be funded, a criticism which however could be directed at other party leaders as well.

The presence of the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Greens made it impossible for Mr Farage of UKIP to play the outsider, though he did his best by presenting himself as the straight-talking no-nonsense politician, arguing that the withdrawal from the European Union will be the cure for many evils afflicting the country. Mr Farage is a divisive figure, but someone who can play to his audience and play well: he knows that there is a limited pool of people – more limited than the other parties – who would vote for UKIP. It will depend on local constituency dynamics whether UKIP could gain any seats in addition to the the ones it has held on in by-elections after defections from the Conservatives, but it seems unlikely that UKIP will win many seats in a first-past-the-post system with a generally higher turnout than European or local elections: in Norwich South in the 2010 general election, the Liberal Democrat candidate won with 29.4% of the votes, in a three-way battle (Labour: 28.7%, Conservative: 22.9%) complemented by a strong showing for the Greens (14.9%). According to the polls, UKIP is in the mid-teens, so unless it can concentrate its support in a few places, and assuming a three-way battle or even a four-way battle, UKIP will not reach more than 30% share of the vote in the constituency that the winning candidate would probably require. The uncertainty factor of UKIP like with the Greens lies not in how many seats it might win, but from whom it takes votes, which may lower the share of the vote needed to win for the other candidates and transform the profile of the constituency.

Mr Clegg, the star of the show last time, attempted to reprise the role of the honest and pragmatic broker who can temper either a Conservative-led or a Labour-led government by becoming the junior partner in a two-party coalition, but his reputation may have been damaged beyond repair by his time in government and a series of broken promises. If neither the Conservatives nor Labour were to obtain a majority of seats on their own, then the stability of the next government and indeed the British constitution may depend on how many Liberal Democrat MPs survive. Both the Conservatives and Labour could conceivably go into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats: other potential coalitions are unlikely. For that reason, even with a diminished presence as the fourth-largest party in terms of number of seats in the House of Commons behind the SNP, and depending on the parliamentary arithmetic, the Liberal Democrats can continue to be in government. The Liberal Democrat narrative has its logic: the question is whether that nuanced narrative pointing to its successes in government, disowning certain elements of the past five years, and convincing the electorate of the desirability of the Liberal Democrats in a future coalition can be packaged in a neat and clear manner, and appeal beyond the core supporters of the party. It is evident that the two-party system is no longer reflective of the British political landscape, yet paradoxically in England the votes may be split in many ways that the Conservatives or Labour may end up winning more seats with a smaller share of the vote, because they have larger core votes. For the the Liberal Democrats, it will be down to how impregnable their fortresses are this time around.

Mr Miliband did not shine but he did not sink either. It was a very difficult platform for the Labour leader. It is questionable whether he was able to convince people that he is the prime minister in waiting, or establish himself as the direct challenger to Mr Cameron, or present clearly differentiated policies from the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, and above all Mr Miliband looked as if he was crowded out by the others. He was sandwiched between the anti-austerity trio of the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Greens on the one side, and the fiscal disciplinarians of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats as well as UKIP on the other. The SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, and UKIP portrayed Mr Miliband as essentially the part of the established political system and only a variation on Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg. Additionally, there was a kind of information asymmetry: Mr Miliband was challenged by Ms Wood and Ms Sturgeon about the effects of Labour’s policies on Wales and Scotland to which he did not seem to have ready answers, and quite importantly in case of Scotland Mr Miliband was unable to challenge Ms Sturgeon’s records in government at Holyrood. Mr Miliband’s narrative in the debate was somewhat unclear: it was an uneasy mixture of the concrete yet symbolic such as on zero hours contracts, pointing out the failures of the outgoing government, and vague promises about the future. Naturally, any politician in Mr Miliband’s position would have come up with that kind of vague narrative, but the difficulties may lie in the fact that Labour needs to calibrate different narratives to different audiences in the UK. In comparison to the Conservatives, Labour is in a difficult position: not only will it have to be the largest party across the whole of the UK competing against the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and UKIP with a British narrative, but it must also compete against the SNP and Plaid Cymru in what are Labour’s traditional heartlands of Scotland and Wales with Scottish and Welsh narratives, and it will probably need to be the largest party in England in order to form the next government.

The TV debate is over, and Mr Cameron must be glad that it is so, since he potentially had the most to lose. Appearing on the same stage levels the field: Mr Cameron would have wanted to use the advantages of being the incumbent in the campaign, and in this debate he needed to show the quasi-mystical quality of being prime ministerial, not to appear as one of the seven party leaders. With anything mystical, the trick is not to reveal too much, hence the strategy looked to be that of remaining aloof without being dismissive, and a crowded platform was to Mr Cameron’s advantage. Mr Cameron’s narrative was reasonably clear: he argued that continuation is the securest way for a better future for the country, and also making pointed references about the failures of the last Labour government. The Conservative position is relatively distinct in fiscal policy, in contrast to Mr Miliband’s predicament of being outflanked by the anti-austerity narrative of the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Greens. The biggest danger perhaps for Mr Cameron was Mr Farage, who could erode Conservative support, especially on the eurospectic wing of the party. For Mr Cameron, it was good that he did not have to engage directly with Mr Farage for any significant amount of time, which he would have had to do with a smaller number of participants. In comparison to Labour, the Conservative strategical framework may be simpler: have a UK narrative that can bring a good result in England. The Conservatives are not going to win so many seats in Scotland, and those voting for the Greens would not really be Tory target audience. The predominantly England-centric narrative will have to take aim at Labour (and the Liberal Democrats), whilst preventing the haemorrhaging of support to UKIP.

I do not think anything fundamental has changed during the course of the TV debate or in its aftermath, but what has become clearer is the degree of uncertainty of the outcome and the diversity of political narratives on offer. As mentioned at the beginning, Labour is probably in a worse situation than the Conservatives, not necessarily because Mr Miliband performed badly, but because it has become apparent that it has to compete for votes on all sides and come up with clearer and differentiated narratives for Scotland and Wales.