How many leaders should take part in the leaders’ debate at the next election?

By Michael Gallagher

leaders debate

The novelty of the leaders’ debates at the 2010 British general election has focused attention on this aspect of election campaigns, especially given the sudden surge in Lib Dem support in mid-April after party leader Nick Clegg was widely adjudged the winner of the first debate. Not surprisingly, the Labour Party here has been quick out of the traps in demanding that at the next election, which after all could come at any time, the now traditional leaders’ debate should be a 3-way contest rather than being confined to the leaders of FF and FG as has always been the case so far. Labour is particularly keen to have Éamon Gilmore allowed into the ring with the other two leaders because the polls consistently show him as by some way the most highly regarded party leader, while there are question marks over both Brian Cowen and Enda Kenny’s performances, and Gilmore has proved himself a highly effective debater in the Dáil chamber.

It is easy to see the logic of Labour’s argument. Things were different in 2007. At that election, Labour won just 10% of the votes, not much more than a third of FG’s support and less than a quarter of FF’s. There was scarcely any doubt that the next government would be led by either Bertie Ahern or Enda Kenny. A head-to-head confrontation between Ahern and Kenny was clearly the most sensible format on that occasion.

As of April 2010, the shape of the party system looks very different. Polls vary a bit, but FG is generally in the mid-30s, FF in the mid-20s and Labour around or just below 20%. The justification for confining the leaders’ debate to the leaders of FF and FG in these circumstances is obviously much weaker, barring sizeable changes in party support before the next election – though of course such changes are quite possible if the 30th Dáil really does run until 2012.

It might be argued that only Kenny and Cowen – assuming they both remain the leaders of their parties for the remainder of this Dáil’s life – have a chance of being Taoiseach after the next election, but this argument is much weaker than before the 2007 election. True, it is unlikely that Gilmore will become Taoiseach, unless there is a really dramatic reverse in the relative strengths of FG and Labour, or unless Labour agrees a ‘rotating Taoiseach’ deal with FG under which he becomes Taoiseach first, neither of which is likely. But then, it could be argued that Cowen’s chances of becoming Taoiseach are even slimmer. FF will not be able to construct a government without either FG or Labour, and both parties have said unequivocally that they will not join FF in a coalition government. Despite public cynicism about the worth of a politician’s promise, in fact politicians do (usually, anyway) honour specific pledges in areas within their control, if only because of the reputational cost of not doing so.

In fact, while Labour will complain vociferously if its leader is excluded from the main debate and is confined to the minor match as in 2007, that outcome might be (even) better for the party than if Gilmore is invited into the main contest, for several reasons. First, the potential for him to gain from the exposure of a TV debate is far less than it was for Nick Clegg, precisely because he is already so well known and regarded whereas Clegg seems to have appeared from nowhere, perfectly formed, in the eyes of many British voters.

Second, evidence that such debates actually change voting intentions is mixed. The dramatic growth in Lib Dem support after Clegg’s debate performance, in the absence of any other plausible explanation for this, shows that they can matter, and the impact on TV viewers of Nixon’s 5 o’clock shadow and sweatiness in the 1960 US presidential debate is regularly trotted out as supporting evidence. Yet, as many people have pointed out, Michael Noonan seemed to outpoint Bertie Ahern in the 2002 leaders’ debate here without this making any discernable impact on FG’s support. While Ahern’s perceived victory over Kenny in the 2007 debate is widely cited as an explanation for FF’s late recovery in the polls then, and the explanation ‘it was the debate what won it’ is perhaps by now ineradicably implanted in the corpus of conventional wisdom, the detailed poll evidence really does not support this (see Michael Marsh’s analysis in How Ireland Voted 2007, pp. 120–1).

Third, absence can make a leader look better. Back in 1992 Albert Reynolds and John Bruton sent many listeners to sleep in a contest widely derided as a 0–0 draw where the real victor was Dick Spring, whose reputation grew stronger the longer the programme dragged on, and when election day came Spring’s own popularity was a major factor in Labour’s record 33 seats.

Fourth, were Gilmore included this might well heighten public awareness of the significant differences in policy, indeed in philosophy, between Labour and FG, especially when it comes to tackling the country’s economic difficulties, something that Brian Cowen should be able to highlight to the advantage of FF along the lines of ‘There is no alternative’.

And fifth, if Gilmore is excluded in a situation where he has a reasonable claim to be included, and if it seems that the underlying reason for this is that the leaders of FF and FG are simply afraid to face him, this could only work to his advantage. Labour could portray his exclusion as an inherent unfairness and the other two leaders would be repeatedly branded in the media as running scared of him.

The leaders’ debate before the next election, whatever its format, could provide a win–win situation for Labour.

4 thoughts on “How many leaders should take part in the leaders’ debate at the next election?

  1. Gilmore doesnt debate, he makes soundbites. Including him in the leaders debates would be a waste of time. Clegg has at least policy ideas.

  2. Discerning the effects of political campaigns is notoriously difficult because the effects are usually small and we can’t exclude the probability that the effect is just as a result of sampling error in the poll used to monitor campaigns. And as we don’t have daily tracking polls even larger effects could be as a result of a number of plausible events. The other problem is that campaigns of political parties tend to cancel each other out. So an attack by one party rarely goes unanswered – and the net effect may be quite small. It is clear as you say that what happened in the UK can be down to no other event than the Leaders’ debate.

    The research on these debates shows that they matter when one of the candidates is relatively unknown (so before last Thursday most people probably wouldn’t have been able to identify Clegg in a line up of LibDem MPs.) It also matters when the race is close (as it is in the UK now, and probably had been tightening even before the debate); when there are a lot of undecided voters (difficult to say but I think this was about 25 percent last week); and if partisan ties are weak (as they are in most countries now).

    On that basis I’m not sure Gilmore would have the huge advantage Clegg had. As you say he is better known in Ireland than Clegg was in Britain. Unless he could really expose either Kenny or Cowen (more likely Kenny as they’ll be fishing in the same pond for votes – I assume anyone who is still voting FF now is a pretty committed partisan) as a poor potential Taoiseach it is less likely to have an impact. In short he doesn’t and won’t in 2012 have the novelty factor evidently important in Britain at the moment. I suppose by your logic, Cowen has nothing to lose by encouraging Gilmore’s inclusion. But if I were in Labour, I want my man in because 1. he’s a better debater than Kenny; 2. he can portray the other two parties as Fianna Gael, and damage FG by saying they’re the same. I’m not sure the issue you bring up of FF being able to expose differences between FG and Labour is all that relevant. If Labour isn’t aligning itself to one or other ‘big’ party it can claim that it wants to be the largest party, and that differences with FG are irrelevant, even something that it would want to emphasise.

  3. I am not sure why Labour want to be part of the debate. As has already been said the effect of Gilmores inclusion is unlikely to be significant. I would also look to the 2007 small party leaders debate where Michael McDowell put in a very strong performance and yet in the election the PD’s were wiped out. So in many ways it does not really matter and this is a bit of a moot debate.

  4. These leaders’ debates are a perversion of parliamentary democracy. It is simply another inappropriate transposition of a US convention. In the US, voters are hiring a chief executive and a commander-in-chief. In parliamentary democracies voters elect members of parliament who generally combine in factions to elect the faction leader who commands majority support in parliament as the head of government.

    Government is of parliament, elected by parliament and accountable to parliament. In the US, the president is accountable both to Congress and to the people who directly elected him or her. The emergence of executive dominance and a presidential style of governance in many EU democracies (Ireland and the UK probably are the most extreme in this respect) has considerably reduced scrutiny, transparency and accountablility of governance. The media should not be faulted for attempting to fill this gap in scrutiny and accountability by facilitating these debates, but this is addressing a symptom – and not the cause – of a much deeper malaise in the system of democratic governance.

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