By Michael Gallagher
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.