David Cameron and the Conservative campaign team believe that their record in government and 2015 manifesto will not withstand the scrutiny of a televised debate with Ed Miliband. If they have so little faith in the appeal of conservative policies, why should we have faith in them?
When your estimated share of the vote hovers around the mid thirties and the opinion polls predict another hung parliament, a serious political party at ease with itself simply cannot afford to be risk averse. And yet that is precisely what both Ed Miliband and David Cameron are doing – the former by pursuing his 35% core vote strategy and the Prime Minister by throwing up as many obstacles as possible between himself and the prospect of taking part in the televised leaders’ debates.
The Guardian shows with one pertinent example why the debates, though a new tradition in British politics, have become an important part of our democratic process:
There is a broader and important point about the accountability of politicians. Tony Blair, ever the showman, held monthly press conferences in an attempt to explain himself. Sometimes, if the timing was right, these events were a very difficult hour for the prime minister. Gordon Brown broadly continued the tradition. Cameron abolished them. He remains available for the occasional newspaper interview with a friendly proprietor and, at conference time, finds time for a 20-minute breakfast inquisition. But his favourite forum is Good Morning Britain, a revealing discussion with a woman’s magazine about his cooking prowess or three questions on regional radio interspersed with a Barry Manilow song.
And Janet Daley, writing in The Telegraph, explains why Cameron’s latest dodge may be a political miscalculation:
Team Cameron’s decision to funk the confrontation with a man they deride as utterly useless will confirm the worst suspicions that the electorate has of the Prime Minister: that he is unwilling to engage with his only serious political opponent either because he has no substantive, principled arguments to uphold, or because he lacks the courage to engage in spontaneous, unpredictable discussion.
But more than the fact that it reeks of cowardice and political calculation, scuppering the leaders’ debates in order to avoid alienating swing voters sends a truly terrible signal to the party faithful.
The sleek professional operations of the main political parties may seem worlds away from the local Labour and Conservative associations, but the men who would be Prime Minister rely on these armies of dedicated volunteers to knock on doors, deliver leaflets and get out the vote on election day. What kind of message does it send to Conservative Party activists if their leader is so unwilling to publicly defend the policies that they are out promoting that he will not share a stage with the other party leaders to make the case for them?
Full disclosure: your blogger’s first taste of political activism came in the spring of 2010 when I pounded the pavements in support of the Conservative candidate (now MP) for Harlow, Robert Halfon. And from that experience I learned that it takes a certain amount of guts, self-confidence and a thick skin to interrupt busy shoppers to pester them about their voting intentions. During the course of my efforts I received my fair share of pitying looks, angry dismissals and verbal abuse, along with the more pleasant and fruitful conversations where I came away feeling I had turned a head or a heart in the direction of the Tories.
Was this all now for nothing? Which of David Cameron’s policies or actions that I advocated during the 2010 campaign and the subsequent years of government is he now so ashamed of that he will not wholeheartedly commit to defending them against Ed Miliband’s sentimentalist waffle in a televised debate? Many current and former Tory activists might well like to know.
While many column inches have been devoted to the elaborate game theory driving the behaviour of the party leaders with regard to the leaders’ debates, few commentators or journalists have considered the impact of these decisions on the party faithful, the high-information voters and activists who understand the issues and do much of the unsung work that gets MPs elected in each constituency.
Skipping the leaders’ debates to avoid alienating low-information voters with no grasp of the issues and who only tune in to politics for the last week of the election campaign may well come at the expense of demoralising an army of committed party activists, people who then choose to sit at home rather than deliver leaflets in the rain or pester their friends and family at the pub. Is disowning his own flagship policies and record in office by avoiding the television debates still a smart move for David Cameron once this impact is factored in?
Of course, given the bland centrism exhibited by both main political parties, we should not expect anything like the Lincoln-Douglas debates from David Cameron and Ed Miliband. This blog has expressed justified pessimism on that front:
Yes, of course we should have pre-election debates. It is shameful that none had ever taken place prior to the 2010 general election campaign. But given the current state of our politics, let’s not set our hopes too high. For while almost everything about the coming general election campaign is new and unpredictable, there is one thing of which we can be reasonably certain: whatever our hopes or expectations for these televised leaders debates may be, we are probably in for a big disappointment.
Perhaps it is not too late to consider empty-chairing Cameron, Clegg and Miliband whether or not they wish to participate, and letting UKIP, the Greens and the SNP slug it out in an insurgent party death-match. At least we would then be treated to a real battle of ideas.
But while this blog does not necessarily expect the leaders’ debates to be particularly revelatory or educational, especially for those voters who already understand the issues, it does expect anyone aspiring to hold or retain the highest political office in the land to have sufficient belief in their own policies to stand on a stage in front of an audience and television cameras and make their case.
David Cameron and the Conservatives clearly believe otherwise, and have made the calculation that the damage they sustain from brazenly scuppering the leaders’ debates will be less than the potential damage caused by a weak showing against Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage, his chief electoral threats, weeks before polling day. And as things stand, he may well be right.
It is now up to the general public, party activists, the media and those engaged with politics in any way to change that risk calculus and force a reluctant David Cameron kicking and screaming to the debate stage.
Those of us who voted Conservative in 2010, who withstood the left-wing accusations of callousness, greed and indifference and who still believe in the cause of small government and individual liberty deserve to have our case argued on prime time television by the Prime Minister that we helped send to 10 Downing Street.