Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Scottish leaders' debates demonstrate why "rules" shouldn't be considered a dirty word

I've heard one or two people (mostly from south of the border, oddly enough) suggest that the two Scottish leaders' debates this week were somehow superior to the "sterile" Britain-wide debate in Salford last week.  Now it's true that the Salford debate had its limitations - you had four members of the audience asking elementary questions and being treated like little Gods for the next thirty minutes.

"Thank you Jonny for your question, it's such an important one for hard-working families and for our whole country.  And you're absolutely right, Jonny, I agree with you so much, Jonny, and I pay homage and tribute to myself for recognising that Jonny is so right.  I remember your name, Jonny, it's been twenty seconds since you asked your question, but I still remember your name, and I want you to know, Jonny, that even though I will have to stop speaking soon and give someone else a go, and even though it will probably be five whole minutes before I get a chance to speak again, when I do get that chance again, Jonny, I will be calling you Jonny, because I will remember your name even then.  That's how important your question is to me, Jonny, and I want to thank you for all you've done for our country tonight."

But I think that was a price worth paying for all seven leaders being given a relatively equal chance, not being talked over (for the most part), and not being unfairly advantaged by one-sided applause or jeering (for the most part).  That's where the Scottish debates have fallen short - they haven't always allowed the arguments to be fairly put and fairly tested.  Viewers thankfully have a strong sense of justice, and the coordinated attempts to shout Nicola Sturgeon down tonight will have angered a lot of neutrals - however, that effect would have been even more devastating for Jim Murphy if he hadn't been partly let off the hook by the distorting "social proof" of an army of Labour partisans in the audience making their presence felt.

If you can guarantee that the audience will be politically balanced, then fine - allowing them to intervene has an enriching effect.  But the lesson of tonight is that providing such a guarantee may be utterly impossible.  I defy anyone to suggest that anything even approaching 45% of the audience in Aberdeen were Yes voters.  As Gillian Martin hinted at on Twitter, it may not be the BBC's fault in this case - Labour may simply have cynically organised people to pose as neutrals and supporters of other parties when they filled in their application forms.  (And the fact that there are enough Labour zealots out there to pull that stunt off puts a rather different complexion on the hoary old myth about nationalist infiltration of polling panels.)

The presence of Hugh Pennington as an "ordinary member of the audience" when he has been a household name for two decades, and when he appeared in a Better Together ad only last year, raises a few question marks to say the least.  There are also strong rumours on social media that the young woman in last night's audience who claimed to have been won over on the spot by Jim Murphy may in fact be a long-standing Labour activist.

I'm glad to say that Nicola kept her cool throughout (perhaps learning from the head-to-head with Johann Lamont last year) and emerged with enormous credit and dignity.  She was the clear winner tonight, just as she was last night - but of course it remains to be seen whether the creepy journalistic cult of Murphy will take advantage of the absence of instant polls, and insist once again that the Earth is flat.

*  *  *

As a particularly barking mad illustration of the above point, Ross Clark wrote the following a few hours ago at the Spectator -

"Having impressed a UK-wide audience in the seven-leader ITV debate last week, [Sturgeon's] reception at the Scottish version was far more muted, with some instant polls suggesting a narrow victory for Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy."

Hmmm. There were no instant polls, and yet Murphy seemingly managed to win some of them. See what I mean about a cult?

Still, it appears his "victory" in these non-existent "polls" was only "narrow", so at least his fan club in the press are keepin' it real.


  1. I hope your analysis is reflected in the polls Janes. Still think Nicola has to be stronger on the economics.

    1. I thought she was very strong on economics tonight - probably stronger than any Yes supporter was in the referendum debates last year. Obviously there's a limit to what you can do when Murphy and Rennie are cretinously talking over you, but within those confines I thought she was excellent.

    2. I would like to see her go on the attack more over Devo Max.

      Most people want significant new powers, even many No voters. Yet all we are seeing is backtracking from the London parties.

      More like SFA than FFA

  2. Funding public reaction polls might have been a way for the SNP (or e.g. Wings) to prevent the MSM crowning Murphy the winner. We got four or five companies competing to tell us how last Thursday went, yet tonight's debate, also shown nationally, has so far been left entirely to the pundits and headline writers. Too cynical to believe this is not accidental?

  3. Ah, technology. In the old days I actually had to watch these awful programmes. Now all I have to do is go online and see whether the Nats or Slabbers are pleased.

  4. Loved the Jonny sketch, sounds like a spitting image.

    Yet again I've come up with a different take, whether I believe it or not I've no idea, but it'll confound and confuse the enemies if they even think about it, if they're capable of thinking that is. Headlines are like "Murphy pins down Sturgeon on FFA", but suppose that's a trap to get Murphy and Labour into Sturgeon and the SNP's hopefully fully prepared choice of battleground?

    After all, it's one of the reasons they're doing well in the polls because people believe the SNP are the only chance Smith will get implemented - fully. But the polls only show around 46% support for the SNP, against around 66% previously for FFA / Devo-Max though that might have dropped a little (not much) with the oil price.

    Could be interesting. Send in the Red Cross with food parcels for the prisoners! Watch Jim Murphy audition for the Great Escape. Just who is the secret weapon - the guy with the mustache?

  5. Thought Nicola was better last night than tonight (though she had a lot to put up with tonight and held up pretty well under the strain). She really came under the cosh on FFA and a 2nd referendum. But since as you have discussed, these policies are popular with a majority or almost a majority of the electorate, it's not clear that staking out a clear position in opposition to the other main parties on these issues will hurt her. Voters saying yes to each don't really have anywhere else to go*

    * With the exception of the Greens: but regrettably Harvie was quite anonymous tonight, I had thought that he would have provided better support to Sturgeon on some of the independence-related questions. Luckily for her though, Coburn was also there to draw some of the fire and gave a predictably dreadful performance.

    1. I've always been baffled as to why so many SNP supporters have been so obsessed with getting the Greens into all the debates, as if that would automatically be a help. The Greens should certainly be there as a matter of natural justice, but how that helps the SNP is beyond me. It's different in the GB-wide debates, because the SNP and Green Party of England & Wales are not in direct competition.

    2. Well, there are two parts to that. Firstly, the Greens have elected representatives in numerous parts of the country (and have done since devolution) compared to the one UKIP clown we scraped up last year. Maybe SNP folks just feel a certain sympathy for a party that proposes a counter-narrative to the mainstream orthodoxy and want to make sure they get a fair shout.

      On the other hand, the Greens are able to pick off the hard left of the Labour Party in a way that the SNP can't AND they're pro-independence. If the Greens can really produce a surge, the could conceivably be the third party in Holyrood after next year. Pushing one of the "main" parties out of the weekly FMQ cycle is one more step towards making the Scottish Parliament that bit more detached from Westminster politics. The more Scottish viewers see English TV not representing TWO of the main parties in Scotland and giving disproportionate coverage to two parties that pretty small minorities (the Tories and the Lib Dems - we remain hopeful about Labour's future!) then the more they'll see that Scotland IS different in some ways.

      And at the end of the day, a fair number of people backing the SNP now are backing them because of independence, NOT their policies per se. The Greens are broadly pro-indy too. We owe them at least a bit of respect for that. And Patrick Harvie always comes across as sensible and professional while still being fairly radical. That's a nice thing to have in a debate.

    3. I think the importance of including the Greens, apart from "natural justice" is this: the mainstream political debate is conducted within a very narrow range of opinion. There is little to choose between Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems. Their version of economics is promoted by what has been described as "media macro" and the neoclassical approach to the economy is now so pervasive that the sane alternative to austerity is portrayed as somewhat crazy.

      Many people know in their guts there is something wrong with it: but so long as they do not hear any one with a public platform legitimise those feelings by presenting the arguments properly, they suffer from the "spiral of silence". They can see (and are right) that they can make no difference. They feel that perhaps they are wrong, as any reasonable person would when faced with what appears to be unanimity of "expert" opinion, And they disengage.

      It is not enough for one party, however talented, to challenge this. It is far more effective if there are several alternative voices, as we saw on the 7 way debate. What happened there was a straightforward denial of the hidden premises, argued from three different stances, but clearly stated. And it gave many people a thrill of recognition that their own views were not crazy at all.

      On the right there is one economic theory but several strands of opinion within that broader narrative: to make an impact the left needs to be seen to have to have a similar profile, as it does in reality.

      That is the advantage of a wider representation of views on MSM: and MSM, with its inbuilt acceptance of the neoliberal tale, knows it. So it is resisted. It is broader than immediate electoral impact

  6. More important than the format has been the content of the debates. The Indyref shifted Scottish politics to the left, and that's been reflected in the issues discussed and the policies staked out. Trident is a much more important issue, of course, and also there's much more of a focus on the plight of the least well off.

    The Scotland 2015's special poverty debate, which drew reasonably big names to speak on topics such as food banks, benefits, living wage etc is something that I can't see being replicated in the rest of the UK's election campaign. So in that sense, debates in Scotland are indeed much less 'sterile' than debates elsewhere.

  7. I'm not sure it would persuade me to vote Green, but this has got to be the most entertaining PPB in years.

    1. Just watched it. Not bad at all. Has the potential to go viral and boost the Green vote, I reckon.

  8. When Johann Lamont decided to turn her head-to-head with Nicola Sturgeon into a rammy to avoid the razor sharp demolition Alistair Carmichael had received, it didn't ultimately help her. I don't think folk like to watch that, as we're actually looking for a fair and informative exchange of views. I trust enough viewers see through Murphy's cynical contribution - be shouty, sound "passionate", don't let others develop points, prepare sound-bites ("Maybes Aye Maybes No") and look "sincere" whenever the NHS comes up or tales of a troubled constituent are to be told. I wondered if Murphy was going to burst into tears at some point last night, and at what point in the proceedings he and his advisers had planned to do it, but he didn't. Nonetheless, he just has to knock a few points off the SNP lead to haul back an awful lot of predicted SNP seats doesn't he?

  9. News just in; BBC/ComRes release results of instant debate poll amongst Labour MSPs;

    Q1) Who do you think won tonight's BBC Scottish Leaders' Debate?
    18% Jim Murphy;
    15% Nicola Sturgeon;
    12% David Coburn;
    25% Gordon Brown;
    10% Arthur Scargill;
    20% James Cook;

    (Excludes 70% of respondents who were incapable of giving an answer due to absence of whip sheet)

  10. Yougov sub-sample

    SNP 42
    Lab 28
    Con 18
    LD 6
    UKIP 4
    GRN 2
    OTH 1

  11. These debates are pointless. You have three supposed seperate parties. Libs,Lab & Con. All directing their venom at one party the SNP. These guys are supposed to be fighting a Westminster election. Two of them should be attacking Ruth who's party is the incumbant they want to defeat. So really it should be SNP,Lab & Lib against the record of the Tories.

    Instead they try to re-run the referendum and use Holyrood to make their points. This is about Westminster and the referendum is irrelevent to the debate. Nicola can never win on these debates as she gets shouted at by 3 people at the same time.

    I don't think I will watch them anymore as it's just a unionist attack on the SNP and nothing more than that.

  12. It was very much a biased pro-labour audience; Nicola made an early point about the irrelevance of UKIP and got a murmur of approval, a couple of minutes later Jim stole her lines and made exactly the same point to rapturous applause. Go figure.

  13. TNS sub-sample (conducted 2nd - 7th): SNP 44, Lab 25, Con 17, Others <8

    1. Pretty much identical to their last subsample.

  14. This ongoing baloney about the wicked Nats "secretly longing for a Tory government" confirms what I keep feeling recently - in the dying days of the union the unionists have moved to a place far beyond satire. As others have said, this attack on the SNP is based on *reading the minds* of Sturgeon et al. How do you respond to this stupidity festering in unionist brains? I have a certain respect for those in Scotland who oppose indy on the basis that they're British and Britain is their country. Who am I to judge their identity? (Though crucially, they're in a minority). But this *uckwittery just beggars belief. Honestly, 30 seats will be great but what I non-secretly hope for is for the SNP to take every frikkin seat in Scotland.

  15. A form of control, by the adjudicator, over the microphones is required to calm down the rammys...!

    He/she would not have to have a bank of switches in front of them, simply a direct link to someone who has and a pre-arranged code for switching 'off' (& back on again) the defaulter(s). This would give whoever has 'the chair' the chance to put their point of view without it being shouted down / interrupted.

  16. Spot on with the Jonny sketch James, lol.

    It all comes across as so false, like when you speak to someone who has recently read 'How to win Friends and Influence People' and they don't realise it's more Manipulation than Influence, they are practicing.

    Jim Murphy the Plastic Politician.

  17. The Scottish leader debates have been terrible.

    The audience seems poorly selected both in political allegiance and in the relevance of the issues that they raise.

    The debates should also be limited to Westminster scenarios as that is the election is being fought. There shouldn't be reruns of referendum debates now points about Holyrood.