General election leader debates: It's two-against-one for 3-3-3

Miliband and Clegg are ready to sign up to three debates over three weeks. They say Cameron is running scared.

There is a casual assumption in Westminster that televised leader debates at the next election will happen. This belief is based on the fact that all three main parties have said that they expect them in theory and the political cost of appearing to chicken out is very high.

But in reality the deal is far from done. Labour and the Lib Dems are both ready to sign up for the so called “333” model – that is, three debates between three leaders over three weeks. The obstacle, they say, is the Tories. The No.10 line is that, naturally, candidates to be Prime Minister should set out their stalls in telly combat, but that doesn’t mean a repetition of the format that was used in 2010. (Note also that only Miliband and Cameron are seriously in the running to be PM. The distinction is important because it excludes Nigel Farage and brackets him as a political B-lister along with Nick Clegg.) One complaint from Conservative strategists is that the three TV marathons “sucked oxygen” out of the campaign, squeezing out everything else, by which they really mean the TV debates allowed Clegg to drain the hopey-changey, fresh faced new-kid appeal out of David Cameron’s campaign.

There are plenty of Conservatives who think the decision to allow the Lib Dem leader to project himself as the “neither of them” candidate in the first debate cost the Tories a majority. That isn’t a trick that Clegg can pull off again – novelty value and youthful idealism are not available to him. But he can still make life difficult for the Prime Minister and the Labour leader.

One of the messages that senior Lib Dems have taken from Ed Balls’s kind(ish) words about Clegg in the New Statesman this week is that Labour are well aware that, on current polling trends, the next election will result in a hung parliament. The shadow chancellor – Clegg’s team speculates – is thinking about shuffling off his image as a tribal politician whose personal animus towards the deputy Prime Minister would be an insurmountable obstacle to governing partnership. As one surprised Clegg aide put it to me yesterday: “It wasn’t just a nod in our direction. He [Balls] really crossed the street to come and say hello.”

This cheers the Lib Dems up no end. It reassures them that their strategy of running as the middle-way party that might moderate Labour and Tory administrations, preventing them from veering too far left or right respectively, is working. One reason Clegg is so keen on the “333” debate formula is that he can gang up with Cameron against Miliband on fiscal policy and team up with Miliband against Cameron on social policy – indicating that a government with Lib Dems in it will take the edge off Tory nastiness or keep Labour spendthrift habits in check, whichever is required.

The Labour side, meanwhile, like the “333” formula because they think Miliband comes across best when given time to set out his arguments. As I wrote in my column this week, Miliband would go into the debates as the underdog, known to be less charismatic than his rivals, and could end up surprising people. He isn’t a flashy soundbite-merchant and he takes a bit of warming up in front of a camera, but on a good day he is capable of making Cameron look shifty, tetchy, haughty and insubstantial in a debate.

In particular, the Labour side want the three debates to be in the final three weeks of the campaign. This is partly to avoid making the long run-up too presidential but also because it is felt having a high-octane finish to the battle will increase the public feeling that it is a “change election”, when the Tories are determined to make it all about continuity, low risk and predictability. It is probably going too far to suggest Labour’s top team expects a last minute surge of Ed-mania but they do think he will benefit if the debates are packed into the last lap.

Senior Labour figures doubt that No.10 is really committed to having the debates at all. (For a long time Cameron avoided saying they should happen.) Labour sources accuse the Tories of stalling, waiting to see what happens in European elections in May and the referendum on Scottish independence in October and, ultimately, hedging their bets in case they decide the whole thing is too risky. Aides to Clegg and Miliband say with some relish that their candidates are ready to sign tomorrow and that Cameron is running scared. That’s the first two-against-one formation of the 2015 general election campaign. It won’t be the last.

The leader line-up for 2015. Source: Getty

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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How should Labour's disgruntled moderates behave?

The price for loyalty looks like being long-term opposition. Sometimes exiting can be brave.

When Albert O. Hirschman was writing Exit, Voice, Loyalty: Responses to decline in Firms, Organizations, and States he wasn’t thinking of the British Labour Party.  That doesn’t mean, though, that one of the world’s seminal applications of economics to politics can’t help us clarify the options open to the 80 to 90 per cent of Labour MPs who, after another week of utter chaos, are in total despair at what’s happening under Jeremy Corbyn.

According to Hirschman, people in their situation have essentially three choices – all of which stand some chance, although there are no guarantees, of turning things around sooner or later.

The first option is simply to get the hell out: exit, after all, can send a pretty powerful, market-style signal to those at the top that things are going wrong and that something has to change.

The second option is to speak up and shout out: if the leadership’s not listening then complaining loudly might mean they get the message.

The third option is to sit tight and shut up, believing that if the boat isn’t rocked it will somehow eventually make it safely to port.

Most Labour MPs have so far plumped for the third course of action.  They’ve battened down the hatches and are waiting for the storm to pass.  In some ways, that makes sense.  For one thing, Labour’s rules and Corbyn’s famous ‘mandate’ make him difficult to dislodge, and anyone seen to move against him risks deselection by angry activists.

For another, there will be a reckoning – a general election defeat so bad that it will be difficult even for diehards to deny there’s a problem: maybe Labour has to do ‘déjà vu all over again’ and lose like it did in 1983 in order to come to its senses. The problem, however, is that this scenario could still see it stuck in opposition for at least a decade. And that’s presuming that the left hasn’t so effectively consolidated its grip on the party that it can’t get out from under.

That’s presumably why a handful of Labour MPs have gone for option two – voice.  Michael Dugher, John Woodcock, Kevan Jones, Wes Streeting and, of course, John Mann have made it pretty clear they think the whole thing’s a mess and that something – ideally Jeremy Corbyn and those around him – has to give.  They’re joined by others – most recently Stephen Kinnock, who’s talked about the party having to take ‘remedial action’ if its performance in local elections turns out to be as woeful as some are suggesting.  And then of course there are potential leadership challengers making none-too-coded keynote speeches and public appearances (both virtual and real), as well as a whole host of back and frontbenchers prepared to criticise Corbyn and those around him, but only off the record.

So far, however, we’ve seen no-one prepared to take the exit option – or at least to go the whole hog. Admittedly, some, like Emma Reynolds, Chuka Umunna, Dan Jarvis, Yvette Cooper, and Rachel Reeves, have gone halfway by pointedly refusing to serve in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet.  But nobody has so far declared their intention to leave politics altogether or to quit the party, either to become an independent or to try to set up something else.

The latter is easily dismissed as a pipe-dream, especially in the light of what happened when Labour moderates tried to do it with the SDP in the eighties.  But maybe it’s time to think again.  After all, in order to refuse even to contemplate it you have to believe that the pendulum will naturally swing back to Labour at a time when, all over Europe, the centre-left looks like being left behind by the march of time and when, in the UK, there seems precious little chance of a now shrunken, predominantly public-sector union movement urging the party back to the centre ground in the same way that its more powerful predecessors did back in the fifties and the late-eighties and nineties. 

Maybe it’s also worth wondering whether those Labour MPs who left for the SDP could and should have done things differently.  Instead of simply jumping ship in relatively small numbers and then staying in parliament, something much bolder and much more dramatic is needed.  What if over one hundred current Labour MPs simultaneously declared they were setting up ‘Real Labour’?  What if they simultaneously resigned from the Commons and then simultaneously fought scores of by-elections under that banner?

To many, even to ask the question is to answer it. The obstacles – political, procedural, and financial – are formidable and forbidding.  The risks are huge and the pay-off massively uncertain.  Indeed, the whole idea can be swiftly written off as a thought-experiment explicitly designed to demonstrate that nothing like it will ever come to pass.

On the other hand, Labour MPs, whether we use Hirschman’s three-way schema or not, are fast running out of options.  The price for loyalty looks like being long-term opposition.  Voice can only do so much when those you’re complaining about seem – in both senses of the word – immovable.  Exit, of course, can easily be made to seem like the coward’s way out. Sometimes, however, it really is the bravest and the best thing to do.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at QMUL. His latest book, Five Year Mission, chronicles Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour party.