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3 April 2015

Who won the seven-way debates? I watched with my girlfriend to find out

Alan Martin's girlfriend didn't watch the 2010 debates and isn't interested in politics - so what did she make of the debates?

By Alan Martin

An audible sigh followed by an almost audible eye-roll. “He’s a bit of a penis, isn’t he?”

My girlfriend has no interest in politics, but here she is with the kind of instant critical response that those of us who follow politics rarely register. It’s 9:15pm and I have roped her into watching the seven way leader debates with the intention of getting the views of someone with few existing preconceptions. She didn’t watch them in 2010, and almost certainly wouldn’t this time if I hadn’t bribed her with takeaway pizza and the promise of something fun with my article fee. Her definition of ‘something fun’ may differ from mine, but at least I didn’t spend it in advance on cardboard cutouts of Clegg, Cameron and Brown from the 2010 debates to decorate my front room, like a political Eurovision theme party. I think that might have turned her cautious yes into a definite no.

Jessica (which isn’t her name – I’m being tactful rather than forgetful) isn’t alone in this. Objectively, you and I are the weird ones in this scenario. As Charlie Brooker points out, politics is really only a niche pursuit, much like golf, but somehow we obsessives have managed to give it more exposure than it genuinely warrants. She appreciates that politics impacts her life, and voted last time around, but like most people in their 20s is more interested in movies, books and video games than following the minutiae of commons votes and policy announcements.

This is a high stakes game. On one hand it could usher in a golden age in my relationship, where every meal together mirrors an episode of Newsnight. On the other, she might express a hitherto unexpressed admiration for a certain purple-tied populist prat. Be careful what you wish for.

I needn’t have worried on that score. Although she enjoyed the plasticine contortions of Mr Farage’s face (how is it that Miliband is compared to Wallace, when the Ukip leader is far closer to a Nick Park creation?), she found his myopic obsession with the EU faintly ridiculous, and his comments about immigrants with AIDs appalling.

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Nick Clegg, on the other hand, could only dream of stirring such strong opinions. She struggled to communicate her complete and total indifference in words, and in the end her response emerged as a guttural sound: ‘blah’. The good kind of centre-ground anchoring ‘blah’, that will rein in the worst excesses of Labour and the Tories? No, just ‘blah.’ Plus his eyes are too small for his head apparently, which is something I can’t say I’d noticed before. Still, Clegg would have longed for ratings as high as ‘blah’ during the student protests, so reasons to be cheerful for the future historical footnote.

Speaking of footnotes, Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru’s struggle to be heard (and flatness when she actually was) ensured that she attracted virtually no comment at all. An understandable obsession with Welsh issues turned Jessica off in a way that somehow Nicola Sturgeon managed to avoid, despite having the same brief north of the border.

Sturgeon was actually the highlight of the debates for Jessica.  Fair, solid in her prepared speeches and combative in debate, the SNP leader won the heartiest of endorsements from someone who was born and raised in London, the city that Scottish nationalists are often openly critical of.

Inclusions of the Welsh and Scottish nationalists meant that discussions of the Barnett Formula were inevitable. Just as inevitably, it was always going to be ‘just noise’ to non-politicos, as was Miliband having to defend Labour over Staffordshire hospital. For debates that were supposed to be accessible to non-voters, this occasional foray into the obscure just felt exclusionary, as The Guardian’s summary of mid-debate Google searches confirms.

This Westminster insider-talk could have been fertile grounds for the promised Green surge, with a little better presentation, but Natalie Bennett’s initial nerves and then uninspiring performance failed to influence Jessica sufficiently. Although she did accept that substantivally the Green leader offered a similar message to Nicola Sturgeon. It was slightly telling that Bennett was the only one that was seldom interrupted, with her opponents perhaps hoping for a repeat of her recent media performances on LBC and Sunday Politics, if left to her own devices.

It’s no coincidence that I’ve got this far with barely a mention of the Prime Minister or the leader of the opposition. Cameron’s tactic of forcing a set that looked more like a gameshow than a current affairs program had pushed the ‘headliners’ down the pecking order. While I found Miliband to be encouragingly calm, measured and – dare I say it – prime ministerial for the most part, Jessica compared him to a lost puppy. Not a rottweiler or a pit bull, either – more like a dachshund or a pug. Now, she’s a dog lover, so that could plausibly be a compliment, if it weren’t swiftly followed by comments about him repeating himself a lot. Nobody likes a yappy puppy.

And as for the prime minister, himself? Well, believe it or not, he was the target of the unflattering quote that opened this article due to his persistent crimes against plain talking. A prime ministerial phallus at least? Possibly: she thought his closing statement stood out as the strongest, though she pointedly noted that being able to appreciate good presentation is not the same thing as believing someone, and he ultimately came across as the least authentic person in the room.

So two hours that Jessica is never going to get back. Will it at least change the way she votes? Not unless she suddenly moves to Scotland, or the SNP decide to stand in Wimbledon. Not bad for a party that she knew nothing about 24 hours earlier, and who David Cameron plans to paint as the bogeyman that keep southerners awake at night.