Will the UK elect the best presenter?

I sat through the third leaders’ debate in the UK General Election campaign last night. Watching politicians dodge questions and criticize each other is a fairly depressing way to spend an evening, but I felt it was an important part of the electoral process, and equally I wanted to see how well the candidates for prime minister acquitted themselves.

In the end, I was rather disappointed by them all. Part of that is down to expectations.

  • I had heard so much about how well Nick Clegg (Lib Dem leader) came over in the first debate in particular, although I only saw excerpts after the  event, so my expectations were high, but he didn’t quite meet them.
  • I expected David Cameron (Con) to be an adept debater and convincing speaker, since he is supposed to be stronger on style than on substance. He certainly was lacking in substance on a number of occasions, but he didn’t appear to be especially sincere, and that undermines the level of respect I can give him.
  • Finally, current Labour PM Gordon Brown claims to be more substance than style, and he’s right about that, but he spent all his time attacking Cameron and appeared to have nothing to offer. Worse, he smiled inanely a number of times, and that looked plain silly. At a time like this, I don’t mind a PM who takes it seriously and doesn’t smile much. By smiling so vapidly, Brown destroyed  his serious, sensible image which was probably his best asset.

I was drawn back to a speech by Conservative PM John Major at his party conference in 1994, where he claimed to be short on style but that substance and results were more important, and the electorate would reward his party based on its record rather than his own public image. History tells us that his party was rewarded by being dumped out of office in 1997 and stuck in opposition for 13 years (at least). Style does count.

I was also drawn to a great speech by Barack Obama on the campaign trail in Wisconsin, where he explains that words do matter, and in effect that the inspirational skills of a political leader are  very important. Take a moment to listen to the first 80 seconds of this speech – perhaps the candidates should do the same.

“If we cannot inspire the country to believe again, it doesn’t matter how many policies and plans we have.”

At this time, the most important thing a leader can do is to inspire the people to believe. Our debt-based economy is a house of cards based on confidence, and if a leader can give confidence to citizens and businesses, that’s probably going to do more good for the country than any cost-cutting or tax changes.

Therefore I wanted to evaluate the party leaders based on their ability to inspire confidence, and their success according to the four aims of presentation:

Be heard, be understood, be respected, and be remembered

It’s fair to  say that they all made themselves heard – no technical issues – although Nick  Clegg did stutter a few times and spoke a little quietly when addressing questioners on a few occasions.

They generally made themselves understood fairly well, using appropriate language, although as politicians do, they tended to avoid difficult points and sometimes confused things unnecessarily. Clegg at one point stated that he was not offering an amnesty to illegal immigrants, and when challenged by Cameron, he then explained that he was offering a limited amnesty to certain illegal immigrants. Most of us already knew this, and he explained it well, but it undermined his credibility to have flatly denied it a few seconds beforehand. How can he expect to be understood properly when he says one thing one minute and another the next?

Equally, Cameron was so evasive on the point of his inheritance tax policy (raising the floor to £1m from £650k) that it was hard to understand why he is advocating this policy. He did explain why he believes it is only fair for millionaires to pay inheritance tax, which came across well, but he failed to address Brown’s repeated charge that this change would only benefit the 3000 richest families in the country which frankly sounds a ludicrous charge (how many people in the south-east own a home worth over £650k? Lots!). So he missed a chance to make himself better understood.

The last two points are the big ones. How much respect did the leaders gain? Brown lost out here by constantly attacking Cameron instead of being positive about what he had to offer, and by smiling inanely whenever one of the others was saying something he disagreed with. Clegg did OK but his constant gestures and remarks trying to ridicule the other two and distance himself from them ended up grating and making him look more like a schoolboy debater. According to the BBC there were groans in the press room each time he did this, as there were in my living room. However, he at least came over as somebody you could trust, which is very important.

So to David Cameron. Did he gain respect? Not by avoiding Brown’s ludicrous charge on inheritance tax, no. He can speak well and he delivered some good points, and he has a very clear and powerful speaking voice. He just comes over as all mouth and no trousers, without real sincerity. His speech to Tory activists afterwards was far more inspirational in fact. But he did come across as the leader we could best expect to inspire the country.

What then did we remember? I’m writing this the following morning. I’ve mentioned much of what I remember already. Clegg scored points by suggesting that whoever is in government, there should be a cross-party economic forum to address the recession, putting the country before politics. Brown just attacked the others on tax credits, even after the others had made it clear they would only drop tax credits for those earning over £50k, a group which really shouldn’t need them. Again Brown looked silly for continuing this attack, and all he had to propose was more wasteful and unnecessary spending.

I am an impartial observer, and wanted to give each man a fair chance to convince me. I don’t think any of them has the leadership calibre of Blair or Thatcher or the oratory skills of Barack Obama. If however the country wants a  leader who can galvanize it and inspire confidence that things will improve, it probably needs a different man in 10 Downing Street this time next week, whichever party ends up with the most seats.

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