In an era of political disillusionment, finding ways to bring politicians closer to the public is not just desirable but essential for the health of our democracy. It is fair to say that TV debates are becoming an established way of doing that in the UK – and new research shows just how important voters find them.
From Cleggmania in 2010, to the seven-party platform of 2015, to the Question Time specials of 2017, millions tuned in over the past three elections to see party leaders put forward their ideas with passion and energy – and to see them held to account.
TV debates are one major focal point, and a key way of getting election debates and key policy issues heard. In May 2017, amid suggestion that neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn would be appearing in a live debate, polling for the ERS found that 56% of people believed leaders’ debates were important in helping them make their decision.
More importantly, we found that the vast majority of those with a view believe that “all major party leaders should commit to participating in televised General Election debates”. What this research suggested was that voters take the tv debates seriously – and they want party leaders to take them seriously too.
June 2017’s snap election didn’t see a full, head-to-head debate between the two main party leaders (although there was a live debate the Prime Minister did not take part in). But the BBC’s Question Time leaders’ special was the closest we got, and it too proved popular. More than four million people tuned in to see the main party leaders pitch their case and be challenged by a live audience.
In the run-up to the programme, the ERS commissioned leading academics in the field of communications and media to look at the impact of the debates on viewers. This research revealed how well TV debates deliver on citizens’ expectations of political communication (‘entitlements’ in the study).
These five expectations are that leaders ‘put their points clearly’, ‘provide factual evidence’ and ‘a clear choice’, ‘engage me in the debate’, and ‘understand people like me’. The report finds that leaders delivered on most of these expectations in the QT special.
Over a third of viewers said the Question Time election special influenced their vote. On a UK-wide level, that would amount to 1.4m voters. These figures matter when research shows the Conservatives could have won an overall majority with just 533 extra votes in the nine most marginal constituencies, while a working majority could have been achieved on just 75 additional votes in the right places.
That means small factors can have a significant effect on elections – a reflection of a broken voting system which needs replacing. But televised election debates are good for our democracy, as this report shows.
Over 80% of viewers said they talked about the QT special with their friends and family, while 40% said the programme made them more interested in the campaign.
But it was the ‘youth surge’ this election that was arguably most significant. More young people watched the entirety of the programme than older viewers, with a much higher proportion of young viewers undecided on who to vote for before seeing the QT special.
TV debates have become incredibly important for general elections in the UK. And the positive democratic legacy of the BBC’s leadership special means it’s time to make such debates a core and established part of 21st century campaigning in the UK – with party leaders expected to take part.
As this report concludes, we need to ensure citizens are ‘addressed, informed, engaged, recognised and empowered’ in ways that enable them to fully engage as a democracy.
We need a framework to be put in place so that live debates are fixed as an integral part of election campaigns. And so that any such programmes should be real head-to-head debates, open to meaningful and live challenge from opponents.
This report sets out the major impact of June’s leadership special for the first time. Now it’s time for party leaders and broadcasters to learn from voters’ views – and ensure that the debates are even better next time.
UK Defence Row Escalates
New defence secretary Gavin Williamson has vowed to protect the UK’s defence budget.
Williamson, at just 41, is the youngest member of Theresa May’s cabinet and his colleagues are rumoured to be treating him as such. Those who have worked with Williamson in the past, however, contend that he is not someone to be underestimated and point to his meteoric rise through the Conservative party as evidence of this. The Ministry of Defence is presently united around Williamson’s determination to maintain current spending levels, which has put the department at loggerheads with the Treasury. The department has a £20bn funding deficit over the next ten years, which chancellor Philip Hammond insists must come out of cost savings.
Austerity, Investment and Infrastructure: Britain’s Productivity Problem
In the recent Autumn Budget, Philip Hammond painted a sorry picture of the UK economy. GDP is forecast to remain subdued, flickering around 1.5% until it slowly picks up again in 2022, whilst productivity is set to resume its abysmal stagnation, which has plagued the UK economy since the financial crisis.
While there has been a steady reduction in unemployment since 2010, much of the progress stems from superficial employment such as more 0-hour contracts, and the rise of ‘the gig economy‘. The fiscal story is similarly painful, with the government hard set on imposing further austerity – specifically lower public spending, justified by alleviating the burden borne by ‘future generations’.
Tory Party rhetoric over the last decade has successfully convinced much of the electorate that fiscal conservatism will strengthen the British economy – but is the burgeoning productivity problem linked to this policy of austerity?
Mind the Gap
According to McKinsey, a consultancy firm, the United Kingdom has an infrastructure investment gap of -0.9%, which means that based on data from 1992 to 2011, the UK will underinvest by the equivalent of approximately 1% of GDP between 2013 and 2030, the worst figure among the advanced economies of Europe.
In the US and Canada, where productivity has stagnated in a similar fashion, the figures are dire; -1.1% and -0.8% respectively. In contrast, where productivity is blossoming the figures are unsurprisingly different. In Australia, productivity has steadily increased over the last ten years, while McKinsey reports an investment gap of an optimistic +0.7%. The causal link between infrastructure and productivity is undeniable; the data shows a correlation.
Fallen by the Wayside
Austerity – the squeezing of public spending to maintain fiscal conservatism, combined with a slew of headline projects that bolsters prospects of re-election – has left British productivity in dire straits. Bent Flyvbjerg, a Professor at Oxford’s Said Business School, claims:
“Politicians like big projects because they are more spectacular, and they need that to get re-elected. They could spend £1bn on mending potholes, but it would be quickly forgotten”.
It is a classic case of the principal-agent problem in economic theory. Governments (agents) are employed by the electorate (principals) to carry out the will of the majority, and yet their incentives are misaligned with those of the public; to maximise the likelihood of re-election, the government focuses on ‘monument building’, as Flyvbjerg calls it. This leaves small-scale infrastructure problems left undealt with, and with consistent ignorance over a period of many years, productivity falters.
It is not easy to overhaul the structure of a country’s political system, and so implementing solutions to fight the problem Flyvbjerg is worried about might be difficult. However, doing away with fiscal conservatism and pumping taxpayer money into infrastructure projects little and large, would go some way in remedying the issue.
Risk aversion and fiscal prudence is natural after financial crises, when governments, households and businesses feel vulnerable. However, economic theory suggests that governments should borrow and spend during bad times, whilst saving and consolidating during the good. Often, this concept is summarised by the analogy “make hay while the sun shines” (and then use that hay in the winter).
In short, the Labour government of the 2000s should have been more sensible with their spending, and the Conservatives of the 2010s should have been less sensible. Nevertheless, it is important that the current government commits to extensive infrastructure investment so that productivity, wages and living standards begin to climb again.
Back on Track?
There are currently some major infrastructure projects under development: HS2, Crossrail, Hinkley Point, and the electrification of Cross-Pennine and GWR routes, to name a few. Despite the fact that many of these projects and others might be put down as attempts to win votes, if they come to fruition they will undoubtedly generate economic growth in the UK.
However, this is a very big ‘if’; there has been ferocious opposition to many of the headline infrastructure projects mentioned, not least the Hinkley Point nuclear power station.
Though the new government has indeed committed to boosting net public spending on infrastructure, with areas like housing, transport and digital communications pulling in most of the available funds, private infrastructure funding may play a greater role in the future. Social divisions are defining political debate both in the UK and elsewhere at the moment, with age inequality of high importance.
A government that harnesses the gigantic pension pots of the middle-aged middle-classes – and facilitates infrastructure investment that builds a prosperous future for young people and earns excellent returns in the process – would certainly get many peoples’ votes. Unfortunately, for the time being, it is safe to say that a concoction of destabilising populism (Brexit), austerity and poor investment decisions is likely to maintain a period of subdued productivity.
Blair vs Corbyn: The Fall of Neoliberalism and Rise of Socialism?
The success of Tony Blair is inevitable when discussing party leaders. He tapped into the hearts of the nation in 1997 by transforming the Labour Party from its socialist core to a centrist political establishment. ‘New Labour’ brought inspiration from the Reagan and Thatcher economics, and implemented social reform. The Clinton-Blair years of neoliberalism saw an age of prosperity, but also an age of austerity. Once Labour became the minority in parliament in 2010 after 13 years of power, a new message from Labour was born to transform the party again, with a fresh new face in Jeremy Corbyn taking the helm in 2015.
There are many differences between the leadership of Blair and Corbyn, that it’s hard to comprehend that they affiliate with the same party. The main opposition they have is pretty clear: war. As President of the Stop the War Coalition for 3 years, it is without a doubt that Corbyn disagrees profusely with Blair’s invasion of the Middle East.
Blair has been vilified for his inclusion in the Iraq war, something that eventually led to his diminishing support in his own party. Corbyn has always been consistent on his stance on international conflict, with him famously opposing the Apartheid crisis of South Africa at a demonstration in 1983.
Corbyn is an advocate of not renewing Trident, a nuclear programme that protects our own nation from nuclear war. Blair, on the other hand, renewed Trident and sent thousands of troops into the Middle East with pressure from President Bush. His relationship with Bush has been considered hierarchical, with Blair coming across as a pushover to satisfy the UK-US special relationship.
Views on the Economy
Secondly, their views on economics are entirely different when it comes to reworking the British economy. Corbyn wants state ownership of privatised companies, meaning companies are less likely to bust under the government rule.
He criticises the Blair years for its lack of council houses, and instead an inflation of rent from private landlords who promised “affordable housing”. Corbyn wishes to implement a rent cap for all struggling tenants if he becomes PM in the near future, something that would anger some hard-right conservatives in Parliament.
On the other hand, Blair believed in ‘free market’, where businesses can rule by themselves as well as being advised by the government. The privatisation of major industries in the Thatcher years continued under Blair, outlining his centre-right position when it comes to the economy. What Blair failed on, is that the independent rule of private companies meant they became too big to fall, and if went bust were forced to rely on government handouts to help. This arguably led to the 2008 financial crash both here and across the pond, which saw the popularity of Tony Blair and Republican George Bush decline rapidly.
Whether one is a fan of Blair or Corbyn, the Labour Party as a whole has changed. Politics has changed in general, meaning the neoliberalism of the past cannot function. Millennials are keen to back a socialist government promised by Corbyn, with a huge surge of young voters turning up to vote for Labour in the recent snap election. With the threat of the hard-right looming with Trump and plans of a hard Brexit, the left-wingers need to adopt a hard-left approach to counteract their opponents. When discussing Blairites at a rally in Southampton, Corbyn is quoted as saying:
“I hope they would recognise politics has changed, the idea of trickle-down of growth in wealth of people simply doesn’t work”.
The aim of the redistribution of wealth during an age of austerity is promising. In a timSet featured imagee where 4 million children live in poverty, and the NHS is hit with crisis after crisis due to underfunding, its fair to say the public is fed up. Corbyn brings a breath of fresh air that Blair also once did, but its now out with the old and in with the new. The surge of democratic socialism is inclining fast, and the popularity of Corbyn and his similar counterpart in the US, Bernie Sanders, exemplifies just that.
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