The televised head-to-head election debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn delivered no knock-out blows, no decisive moment of triumph or debacle. In this respect, it was typical of such debates. All the evidence suggests that televised election debates are hardly ever gamechangers. They don’t recast public opinion in such a way as to determine the election outcome.
There is, however, abundant evidence to suggest that debates do have an effect on undecided voters, particularly those with weak allegiance to parties or candidates. They change what undecided viewers think when it comes to the strengths and weaknesses of candidates, especially when they’ve had only minimal media exposure before the debates. Debates do also have an impact on close electoral races in which a relatively small number of votes might make a difference to the result.
Studies of the UK debates since 2010 have consistently shown that younger and undecided voters are especially likely to watch TV debates with a view to making their minds up and to talk about them with others while they’re happening and afterwards.
I watched the first debate of the 2019 UK election campaign between Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson in the company of 100 undecided voters, brought into the University of Leeds to watch Johnson and Corbyn while using a real-time response app.
The app allows users to instantly express their views in real-time. While watching the debate, our audience of undecided voters were asked to select statements on their mobile screen that reflected their feelings at any moment during the debate. Our audience of 100 people made just under 10,000 responses during the course of the debate. We shall have much more to say about that experiment in due course, but a few broad observations can already be made.
Firstly, there seemed to be two debates going on at the same time – one on the traditional question of which party could make a difference to public services and another on Brexit.
When it came to the more traditional side of the discussion, our viewers were particularly responsive to Corbyn’s warnings about the Conservative government allowing the marketisation of the NHS.
For viewers who regarded the election as mainly being about Brexit, Johnson’s repeated mantra of “get Brexit done” and references to Labour’s “dithering” had a lot of resonance. For them, ending the impasse was an overriding priority.
The initial implication of the data is that how people responded to this debate depended upon whether it was viewed in the context of a one-issue Brexit election or a broader contest between sharply differing social visions. As we drill into the data we shall be exploring how these two perspectives on the election conflict and converge.
Who do you hate least?
It’s also worth noting that people like to see political leaders put on the spot. This not only dramatises political choice but allows people to make important evaluations about the character of the person who will become their representative on the global stage.
The contrast between Corbyn and Johnson as characters is stark. Both arouse intense reactions from people who oppose them. It may be that in these election debates, as in the US presidential debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016, the battle will be to establish which candidate fewest people can’t stand the sight of.
This debate was marked by the conspicuous absence of the Liberal Democrat and Scottish National Party leaders, both of whom could hold the balance of power after December 12. ITV defended this exclusion on the grounds that this was a prime ministerial debate.
It may well be that the multi-party leaders’ debates will be more significant events in 2019 than they have been in the past. Voters, many of whom will be casting tactical votes, will be interested to see if and how the parties align in an election determined by avoidance of the lesser evil.
This election campaign is going to be rich in televised debates but it is to be hoped that, as the campaign goes on, formats might become rather more creative. The questions the audience put to Corbyn and Johnson were sharp and penetrating, reminding us that politics is not about ideological abstractions, but lived experience. There is a widespread perception, especially among disengaged and undecided citizens, that politicians simply do not understand what life is like for ordinary people. Election debates are a public test of that suspicion.