There have recently been calls for a televised debate between the leaders of the three main political parties in the UK ahead of the next general election.
Gordon Brown (Labour), David Cameron (Conservative) and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat) have all agreed, in principle to the debate and Sky News have been running an online petition to gain support from the public and cement it in history.
The televised debate has been a feature of American politics for a number of years. I remember studying Politics at school and discussing Nixon v Kennedy in the first of four televised debates during their presidential campaigns of 1960.
Nixon had recently been discharged from hospital and campaigned right up until the first debate. He also refused television makeup. Kennedy on the other hand had rested. He was tanned, clean-shaven and well prepared. Nixon looked lost, pale, under-weight and was bearing stubble.
The vast majority of the 80 million television viewers thought Kennedy had won the debate. Even with television footage in black and white, his photogenic appeal is widely held as the explanation why. This explanation is reinforced when we consider listeners on radio throughout the U.S regarded Nixon as the winner.
‘Politics in a new light’
Whatever happens the debate in the UK can be seen as a modernisation of democracy and a necessary step towards more transparent politics in the UK. After the expenses scandal and the failure to present a coherent strategy on Afghanistan, it is up to all three leaders to rest and tan (as it were). The British public needs to be reintroduced to politics in a new light and the leader’s debate is a useful opportunity to do so.
This opportunity should be used not necessarily to attack others, nor persistently dig up manifesto promises which have been fulfilled in times gone by, or what I like to call, ‘recalling the glory years’. Nor should it be used to complain about manifesto promises which the government have failed to turn into legislation.
The leaders need to sew together reputations as clean, honest and committed personalities who have a clear outline for the methods they will use to regain public support and bring politics closer to its people.
In my eyes that is what the general election is all about. It is about bringing politics closer to the people it has alienated. It is about parties fighting for votes from a pool of people who might now abstain. It is about increasing the importance of transparency in UK Politics. It is about committing to reforming the pay structure and perks of MP’s and it is about tabling a coherent, visible strategy for Afghanistan, rather than just echoing Barack Obama every three weeks.
The question of image
Bearing all of this in mind, we can return to the question of whether or not image will determine the winner of the debate as it did so famously for Kennedy during the 1960 Presidential election. Fifty years on it seems that image is more important than ever before. With not only colour, but now high-definition television, the leaders will have to be weary of the problems encountered by Nixon in 1960.
The viewers will be able to measure the depth of individual creases and crows feet on the leader’s face. If they fail notice it themselves, rest assured it will be printed on tabloid front pages with in-depth analysis detailing ‘the terrain of a modern politician’s face’. In many ways it is an unfortunate aspect of being an important player in politics today, something you must accept is that you will look 60 when you are actually 40 years old.
Having detailed what I think needs to be the focus of the leaders debate and the general election as being based around personable characteristics, it follows that image may well play a large part in determining the outcome. People’s images can create a subconscious confidence in what comes out of their mouth.
In my opinion, any leader looking tired and dishevelled on the night of the debate will find it hard to portray a rejuvenated character who is ready and willing to head up a government for the next four or five years. A leader looking rested, tanned, clean-shaven and youthful may benefit from the ‘Kennedy effect’, presenting the public with a confidence and a readiness which will translate into votes.
By Nick Higgins