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How much difference will the TV debates make?

The Shakespeare Report.

The-Leadership-Debates-boxi There's great excitement about what the effect the leaders' debates might have on the course of the election campaign. Everyone remembers how Kennedy v Nixon seemed pivotal in 1960, and we now have our very own debates with the first one just days away. As the race remains reasonably close, everyone is wondering: just how much will this direct TV confrontation between Cameron and Brown really matter?

Anything can happen; it's possible that there will be a surprise, a mistake, a knock-out punch. But my own view is, the odds are very much against it. The Chancellor Debate didn't exactly set the world on fire - or even get noticed by the great majority of the public.

The comparison with American politics just doesn't work: in America, people really do have to decide between two people, two individuals, very often two new candidates they hardly know. Not so in Britain, where we've had years of direct bear-pit confrontation at the weekly PMQs. And a significantly greater proportion of the American population is engaged with the political process compared to the British. Yet even in America, it's very rare for the debates to have a genuine impact. Notice that everyone goes back 50 years to remember one that may have made a difference. And yes, there was a good one-liner in 1984's Reagan v Mondale, but it changed nothing, and... that's it. Can you remember another moment?

It can hardly be over-emphasised: most people find politics profoundly dull and pointless, and putting it on prime-time won't change that. It seems unlikely that many millions will give up a big part of their evening to assess the qualities of Brown and Cameron in debate, even with all the media hype that is undoubtedly coming. I love the Danny Finkelstein/Phil Collins blog at The Times which runs an agony-uncle column, ostensibly to help its readers decide which candidate to vote for: we are invited to imagine a confused 'true blue' seeking advice from pundits on what to do in Buckingham. It's an amusing format precisely because it's so hard to imagine that anyone really makes up their mind in this way.

I don't suppose either Brown or Cameron will take much of a risk, as both would rather get a goalless draw than raise the stakes. That's very much the flavour of this campaign so far. I was out in the country today talking to a friend who said,

"It's like there's a conspiracy to make this race all about nothing. All the politicians are acting like a cartel, with a shared interest in nobody getting interested. Out here we hardly notice, because they don't talk about what matters to us."

Certainly all three parties in this first week have played it like a game only for the cognescenti, the knowing insider, the smart Westminster audience, not aimed at the wider public at all. So perhaps after all we do need these debates, just in case they inject something fresh - we need a stage for that accidental flash-point that sparks the real contest.

Stephan Shakespeare is CEO of YouGov.


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