Thursday, 15 April 2010

Tweedledum, Tweedledee and Tweedledumber

It's just a question of deciding what exactly was most awful about the televised, 90-minutes Leaders' Debate this evening. Was it the awful decisions about what to debate and in what order? First was immigration, then crime. After these two rounds - with Brown, Cameron and Clegg competing over who's toughest - I couldn't help feeling Nick Griffin was the biggest winner. The BNP leader must have been watching and feeling smug about the mainstream following his agenda. 

What about the sheer banality? It would be impossible, on most issues, to discern which party each man was representing. They were utterly interchangeable, without even a hint of ideological difference never mind a real clash of ideas. This is managerialism not political leadership.  

It was striking, too, how few solutions any of them had to anything. The overall sense was one of sheer malaise: a political class that is exhausted, bereft of ideas, incapable of anything more than tinkering at the edges.

Then there's the stilted nature of 'debate': a series of soundbites and glib assertions with no scope for any cut and thrust or challenge to the leaders. But it's not clear the debate would have been livelier with a looser format - that would require the politicians having something distinctive to say. 

In the section on education we had such a numbing series of platitudes - good discipline, fair for all etc - it was manna from heaven when Nick Clegg actually proposed a policy: smaller class sizes. Not that the Lib Dems are willing to invest the money needed to achieve that. Quite the opposite in fact: his public sector cuts plans are incompatible with such positive reforms.

Clegg was notable for how contradictory he was: why are we wasting money on Trident then, in the next breath, why are we spending so much on public sector pensions? It came across as a sort of half-baked opportunism. 

The party leaders were given an easy ride on Afghanistan, being asked about military equipment and funding not about the war itself. The majority of time was devoted to wraggling over equipment, not the deeper political issues. Clegg scored a hit by reiterating his point about Trident, almost the only time in the entire debate there was any significant difference between the three leaders.

All in all this was a grim reminder of the sheer narrowness of the scope of debate in our political elite - and the lack of any solutions to society's problems offered by the mainstream parties. Election night will be dramatic and unpredictable, but the campaign is dreary. Tonight's 'debate' did nothing to enliven it, which at root is a failure of politics not just presentation.     
This article is also published at Counterfire.

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