Nick Clegg vs. Nigel Farage. Whose interest does it serve and what might it mean?

This post was originally published on the Political Science Association's Insight blog, prior to the Clegg-Farage debates.

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The run up to the European Parliamentary elections on 22nd May will see two live debates between leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg and leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party Nigel Farage. The first debate will be broadcast on LBC Radio on 26th March, with the follow-up content appearing on BBC television on 2nd April. The original idea for the debates came when Clegg challenged Farage to a joint appearance in February. After a few days consideration, UKIP accepted the proposal, with the parties ultimately agreeing on the two debate format.

Why was the proposal made and accepted? By way of explanation, a few general points should first be made. First – and fairly obviously – politicians only ever agree to take part in live debates when they feel they have something to gain from them. However, the cost-benefit calculation is complicated by the high stakes at play in live debating. Simply put, when politicians put themselves in this situation a lot more can go wrong than can go right. It was for this reason that American political scientist Alan Schroeder called his history of American Presidential debates Fifty Years of High Risk Television.  

In practice, the politician with the greatest incentive to debate is likely to be trailing in the polls. After all, they stand to benefit from shaking the contest up with a good performance and also have little to lose in the event of a bad performance. However, since a debate requires at least two participants, the poll-leader is likely to face exactly the opposite equitation (i.e. since they are already winning they have little to gain from a good performance, while a bad performance could really undermine their chances). As such, they are likely to veto any debate proposals. This is one of the reasons why it took so long for the United Kingdom to have pre-election Prime Ministerial debates. While numerous invitations were offered over the years by the parties playing catch-up, the idea was always nixed by the party that was leading in the polls, and thus had less to gain. Similarly, while vast quantities of ink has been spilt creating the mythology of the 1960 American Presidential debates, it is worth noting that there was not a repeat performance until the Carter-Ford contest of 1976, precisely because the 1960 debate became so linked to Nixon’s defeat.        

Figure 1: Liberal Democrat poll rating vs. Others in ICM polls, General Election 2010 - March 2014

Figure 1: Liberal Democrat poll rating vs. Others in ICM polls, General Election 2010 - March 2014

The Clegg-Farage agreement to debate reflects this basic logic, at least to some extent. This is most obvious in the case of Nick Clegg. Ever since the early months of the coalition government, the Liberal Democrats poll ratings have struggled, while UKIP’s rise has regularly placed the Liberal Democrats in forth position, trailing the anti-European Union party. This is shown in Figure One, which based on ICM polling data from the start of the 2010 election until the present (the raw data for the graph is available from The Guardian. Note that the ICM dataset does not actually include the polling share for UKIP, but only the three major parties and “others”. However, the vast bulk of this group indicates support for UKIP).

UKIP too have an incentive to agree to the debate. While their poll ratings are buoyant and suggest a good performance in the European election, they still remain a fringe party in British politics. As such, they have a lot to gain from the exposure offered by prime time media coverage.

There is also an additional factor in play which may have also encouraged both parties to agree to the debate. In reality, they are not in direct competition with each other. Realistically, there are very few voters who are going to the spend the next few weeks weighing up the relative merits of a vote for the Liberal Democrat or UKIP. According to research done by YouGov for Prospect Magazine only 15 per cent of citizens saying they currently support UKIP claim to have voted Liberal Democrat at the last election. By challenging Farage so directly, Clegg seems to be trying to cast himself as the authoritative voice of British Euro-enthusiasm – the politician who is unafraid to take on the little Englander tendency. While such a position might not be very popular with many among the electorate, a full-throated attack on Farage might pull a few points back to the Liberal Democrats (especially when both David Cameron and Ed Miliband are struggling to clearly articulate their positions on Europe). Similarly, Clegg would seem to be the perfect target for Farage’s strongest rhetorical device – an attack on a self-interested political class disconnected from the concerns and values of ordinary voters. So debate might be a rare win-win scenario for both parties.

What does the broadcast of this debate mean for the future? There may be some interesting ramifications for any potential 2015 election televised debate. In 2010, the debate was restricted to the three major parties. Obviously, this approach does create certain problems in a parliamentary democracy with a complex party system. For example, nationalist parties are excluded even though they might be major parties or even parties of government in their region. Whether to include UKIP in 2015 could present an even bigger problem. On the one hand, the party will likely still have no seats in Westminster. However, it might – if it finishes top of the polls in May – have won a nationwide election, and could continue to score highly in opinion polls. It will likely also be fielding candidates across the country. At the very least, the negotiation process will be a lot more complex than the discussions in the past month, as the Conservatives and Labour will also be involved, and bring a much more complex tapestry of interests to the table.