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Leaders debate

It was a week during which the prospect of a hung parliament began to look like a very real possibility and both Labour and the Conservatives began to face up to some realpolitik. Oh, and David Cameron was hit by an egg (Clegged one week, egged the next). Steve Beauchampé reports.

The dye seems increasingly to have been cast; the impact of the second Leader’s Debate (Thursday, Sky News) on voter intentions was minimal, the damage done to both Labour and the Conservatives by the emergence of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats largely held and - short of a second major unforeseen twist to the campaign - everything points to a hung (or balanced) parliament.

By Saturday, the Tories had clawed back a couple of percentage points lost the previous week, edging towards the 34-35% mark, with Labour increasingly registering in third (27-30%) a shade behind the Lib Dems.

Having maintained their ‘bounce’ for over a week, and in the face of both a close examination of their policies and some wanton mud slinging by the Tory press (encouraged by Conservative Central Office perhaps?) the Liberal Democrat surge appears to be no flash in the pan.

While the TV debates have undoubtedly energised the campaign (around 250,000 people registered to vote in the five days between the first debate and the cut-off point for voter registration), the manner in which they have dominated the 2010 election may be less beneficial to good governance than populist sentiment has decreed.

The debates have sucked the energy from the wider campaign, with the 48-hour period both before and after each show dominated by pre- and post-match analysis to the exclusion of almost all other election issues.

As Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party put it, the debates haven’t just dominated the campaign, they have been the campaign, Worse, much of this coverage concentrates on assessing who ‘won’ and who best used their hands, eyes and smiles, rather than the strengths or weaknesses of their arguments and policies.

We are witnessing as never before the Presidentialisation of our politics, just when understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the three front bench teams is crucial as the public try to assess which party (or parties) is best equipped to govern.

But every cloud has a silver lining (or two in this case); the leader’s wives - in particular the ubiquitous Samantha Cameron - have at last been pushed into the background, while we can be quite certain that this time it won’t be The Sun wot won it!!!!!

Neither it appears can the Murdoch press, their cohorts at the Telegraph, Mail and Express, or even the Conservative Party leadership, persuade floating voters that the hung parliament which they would have us believe we are all sleepwalking towards is quite the disaster being predicted.

Those who so belatedly aligned themselves with Lib Dems know exactly what the impact of their actions will be - and it’s precisely what they want. They’ve had enough of a system that returns the same old same old to the exclusion of all other parties and strands of opinion time and again; they’ve seen how alternative voting systems do not by definition lead to weakness and indecision.

Sure, they don’t want Gordon no matter how hard he tries but they can’t bring themselves to vote for David either. Vote for Clegg, get Brown, Milliband or Johnson is not the issue; vote for Clegg, get voting reform is.

In the face of this, the doom-mongering prophecies of economic meltdown from Ken Clarke (an often estimable politician, usually blessed with the common touch) and his increasingly shrill and worried shadow front bench colleagues cut no ice. One fears that they doth protest too much!

By the weekend Cameron was beginning to address the issue, but like a fireman going to the wrong fire (to borrow a wonderful line about Billy Wright from a report on the 1956 England/Hungary match) his proposed reforms did nothing to address the inadequacies and injustices of the current system.

Populist, but of little or no relevance, Cameron’s proposals include giving voters the power to recall ‘corrupt’ MPs (adequate Parliamentary standards would address this issue) and a plan to force a Prime Minister who had not been directly elected to hold a General Election within six months of taking office (which ignores the fundamental fact that a General Election is solely about electing a government - where the Prime Minister is one of a team - and not a President!).

The Conservatives’ other, less publicised, voting reform plans could hardly be more at odds with those calling for radical change. The party plans to reduce the number of MPs by around 10% (populist, but with a rising population surely we should be increasing their number?) achieving this reduction by expanding the size of constituencies to around 100,000 voters.

As the Tories have calculated, most of the 60+ seats to be lost will come from the larger towns and cities (where the number of electors per constituency tends to be lower than in rural areas) most of which are traditional Labour supporting areas.

The result would be a reduction in Labour strongholds of around 40 seats, thus making it extremely difficult for them to ever again form a majority Government. While the current voting system undoubtedly favours Labour over the Conservatives, the real injustice is that both it - and the Conservative’s proposed reforms - mitigate against the Liberal Democrats, UKIP, Greens, Respect and a host of other ‘fringe’ parties.

For Gordon Brown, this week’s final leader’s debate (BBC1, Thursday) is probably the last chance for Labour to make any significant inroads into the gap between themselves, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

Highlighting the economy, as former Chancellor, Brown should be on strong ground during much of the debate, but with Nick Clegg having already intimated his party’s terms for doing a deal with Labour (and they may not involve Brown should Labour come third), it may be the House of Lords for Gordon Brown. At least until a coalition government scraps it.


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