Scottish referendum TV debate played to the partisans, not the key undecided voters

Salmond’s performance was not the game changer Yes campaigners were praying for. Danny Lawson/PA Wire

The first leaders’ debate was meant to be an opportunity for Scotland’s uncommitted – though not necessarily wholly undecided – voters to make up their minds about which way to vote. Yet whether it succeeded in helping many of them to do so is doubtful.

The format of the occasion did not help. The two leaders were encouraged either to cross swords with each other or else to address the audience in the intimate atmosphere of the Conservatoire’s opera house. They spent all too little time addressing the camera, hence missing an opportunity to connect with the voters watching from the comfort of their own sofas.

But the focus adopted by the two combatants compounded the problem. For the most part, they preferred to talk about subjects that matter to partisans on both sides. Issues such as Scotland being governed by Tories that it did not elect, or what currency an independent Scotland would adopt, matter far less to those who had not already made up their minds a long time ago.

Particularly notable was the absence of any extended discussion on how Scotland’s economy could best be made more prosperous. That after all, according to all the polling evidence, is the issue that most concerns uncommitted voters and certainly seems most likely to change minds.

Still, voters might at least have secured insight into some of the weaknesses in the arguments of both sides. Darling struggled most when asked exactly what powers would be devolved to the Scottish Parliament in the event of a No vote. Salmond was under most pressure when he was persistently asked what his plan B on currency would be. On these occasions, at least, the light of critical scrutiny was cast upon the referendum debate.

Darling wasn’t afraid to point the finger at Salmond on currency issues. David Cheskin/PA Wire
One surprise about the debate was that, far from being boring, Darling proved to be if anything the more animated of the two. He was most at home when trying to identify what he reckoned were the weaknesses in his opponent’s armour. Salmond’s performance, in contrast, was more true to form. He was happiest when towards the end of the debate he gained some opportunity to lay out his vision for an independent Scotland. And he was always ready – perhaps indeed too ready – to attack Darling’s past record and statements rather than responding to some of the criticisms of his own stance.

In being more animated than expected, Darling seems to have done enough to ensure the event will not be the game changer that the Yes side had hoped for. According to an instant poll of just over 500 viewers conducted by ICM for The Guardian, 47% thought Darling won the debate, compared with 37% for Salmond, while 15% were unable to identify a winner.

In truth most Yes and No voters simply thought their own man had won. More interestingly among the small group of previously undecided voters in ICM’s sample, Salmond emerged narrowly ahead by 44%, to Darling’s 36%. That seems to have helped produce a two-point increase in Yes support among ICM’s sample as compared with what respondents said before the debate, while No support was up by one point.

But given that an Ipsos MORI poll at the beginning of the night suggested that the Yes campaign is still 14 points behind, the pro-independence side needed to make much more progress than that. There must be some concern in the nationalist camp that they may have let slip a key opportunity to advance their cause.