What bizarre arrangements have been reached for the election debates. It is hard to see why Ed Miliband agreed to take part in the debate between five opposition leaders, where he is in danger of becoming one challenger among many. One would almost think he wants David Cameron to emerge as the only serious candidate for the prime ministership.
But we should not allow ourselves to spend too much time considering the format of these debates. Throughout the campaign, the behaviour of the various leaders, their tone, demeanour and willingness to say things, will be of greater importance. An election offers the chance to connect with voters, by speaking directly to them, preferably under conditions where the voters have the chance to speak, or heckle, back, as used to be the case at public meetings. There the courage, eloquence, resourcefulness and stamina of the candidate were tested by direct contact with members of the public who might well be hostile.
A television studio seldom reproduces these conditions all that satisfactorily. There is a danger that the candidate arrives crammed with vapid and evasive soundbites, and insults the audience by declining ever to take it into his or her confidence, or to say anything which anyone might find objectionable. Instead of communication, we find ourselves presented with a dishonest pretence of communication. That will not be the way to get one’s own supporters to turn out, or to persuade the apathetic or disillusioned voter that it might be worth taking part.
In other words, the election is a test of leadership, which many of the candidates are in danger of failing. For they often enough started out in politics as advisers, who could outline the advantages and disadvantages of the different lines which might be taken in response to any given question, but whose job was not to take decisions. They were backroom boys (usually boys), and the buck did not stop with them. Now that it does, they don’t know quite what to do, because they have never actually had to decide. Miliband offers an acute example of this problem.
For the Conservatives, there is a further danger in the coming weeks: namely that we shall find Miliband so deficient in leadership qualities that we shall consider it inconceivable that he will ever become Prime Minister. If a sufficient number of voters take the same view, he will indeed never get to Number Ten. But in the end, voters will wish to make up their own minds on this question, and will not want to be told what to think about it. There is no evidence that in 2010, denunciations of Gordon Brown by the Conservatives persuaded a single Labour voter not to vote for him.
The Conservatives need to set out a convincing programme of work for the next five years, far more ambitious, practical, trustworthy and inclusive than anything Labour puts forward. As for Miliband, the best way to treat him will be for quite long periods to ignore him: which is rather what has happened to him over the debates.