How TV changed the face of British politics
Last year was the year that changed the face of British politics, possibly forever, bringing in the first coalition government since the Second World War.
And, make no mistake, it was television that brought about that change. If it had not been for the three TV debates during the 2010 general election campaign, there probably would not be a coalition government now.
Nick Clegg would not have been transformed – in the space of just over six months – from the fresh face of British politics to Deputy Prime Minister and then to the hate figure of student protesters and hundreds of thousands of disillusioned Liberal Democrat voters.
In the months leading up to the beginning of the election campaign in April, the election on May 6 looked to be the Conservatives to lose. The Conservatives enjoyed big opinion poll leads while Gordon Brown had limped on after several coup attempts by members of his own party.
But all that changed on three consecutive Thursday evenings in April. The first TV debate, staged by ITV at Granada, produced Cleggmania as Gordon Brown said again and again “I agree with Nick” and handed the LibDems a powerful election slogan. Nick Clegg had arrived in the big time. The LibDems’ poll ratings soared and suddenly the election was a three-horse race.
In Bristol, after coming under fire from critics inside the Conservative Party for being too cautious in the first debate, David Cameron came out fighting in the Sky News debate. But Clegg was already in the game and no longer on the sidelines.
And by Birmingham, after his “that bigoted woman” nightmare with Labour supporter Gillian Duffy in Rochdale the day before, Gordon Brown had virtually thrown in the towel. In his final plea to voters in the final few minutes, he appeared to concede defeat.
By this time, Peter Mandelson was already in what my colleague Adam Boutlon had dubbed “spin alley”, spinning furiously for the beleagued Labour leader. In the middle of the melee in “spin alley”, I remember thinking at the time that Mandy had given up too, since he didn’t even wait until the end of the debate to try and influence the media coverage.
Did Brown and Cameron, in particular, blunder by allowing Clegg equal billing in the TV debates? Possibly. But it’s difficult to see how the debates could have been staged in any other way.
There was one other reason why Cameron didn’t get his overall majority, though. The launch of the Tory manifesto, at Battersea Power Station in south London, was glitzy but baffling. It was the launch of Cameron’s “big society”. Wavering voters were left confused and in many cases turned off.
After the election came the lengthy coalition negotiations. My personal recollection is of meetings of LibDem MPs lasting long into the night, of Gordon Brown “squatting” in Downing Street and then his graceful exit with his wife Sarah and two young sons.
So Labour began the process of electing its new leader. I always believed Ed Miliband would defeat his brother, ever since the former joint general secretary of the Unite super-union, Derek Simpson, became an extremely vocal cheerleader for Ed at the TUC conference in Liverpool in 2009.
On the eve of the result being declared in Manchester, I was in the Commons talking to MPs and then bumped into a very senior Labour figure in the Red Lion pub in Whitehall. “Ed’s won, hasn’t he?” I said. “Yes,” was the the reply.
But after a promising start at his first Prime Minister’s Questions, Ed had a difficult first few months. I was shocked at some of the venom and vitriol directed at him privately by many of the Labour MPs who had supported David. And by their determination to dump him!
Ed’s “blank sheet of paper” gaffe, regarding Labour policy in a BBC interview, was damaging. And I’m not convinced hiring Times journalist Tom Baldwin – dubbed “Alastair Campbell’s mouthpiece” by Greg Dyke and target for colourful allegations by his old foe Lord Ashcroft – as a strategy chief is a wise choice.
But autumn was dominated by the battles inside and outside Parliament on tuition fees. On the day of the first big demo, the day Tory HQ at Millbank Tower was trashed, I was struck by how Cameron and the Tories escaped the students anger and it was all directed at Clegg.
Although the Coalition won the Commons vote comfortably by 21 votes and two Lords votes by 68 and 73 votes a few days later, Cameron was guilty of barely lifting a finger to help Clegg during the difficult ordeal for the LibDems as they were slammed for their fees U-turn.
The whole ugly episode left the LibDems badly damaged. The poll ratings of both Clegg and his party – riding so high during the election campaign – have nosedived.
Can they recover in 2011? There are the elections for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and English town halls on May 5. And… yes, hold your breath… the referendum on changing the voting system from first past the post to the alternative vote.
A few weeks ago I asked David Cameron if he favoured TV debates on the AV referendum. He replied that he didn’t think there was enough interest to sustain them. In other words, he accepts that TV debates changed the face of British politics in 2010. And as a supporter of first past the post, he doesn’t want that to happen again in 2011.