Competing in a presidential-style campaign

John Dixon

John Dixon finds that Westminster elections are getting harder for Plaid to fight

Full and objective analysis of the 2010 General Election campaign requires a bit more distance than a defeated Plaid candidate can reasonably possess a matter of a few days after the event. Any immediate reaction is therefore going to contain a strong element of subjectivity.

Of course, the results overall were disappointing for Plaid, but the situation could have been worse – we could have lost seats. Yet after months of talking confidently about sending our largest ever team to Westminster, remaining stuck on three seats is hardly something we can spin as any sort of success.

It’s easy to simply blame the televised leaders’ debates. Clearly, they changed the nature and context of the election, and that had an effect. But I tend to the view that they were actually the visible pinnacle of a change which has been happening slowly over a lengthy period – probably since the beginning of the television age. And the real problem is that we have not fully understood the nature of that slow change, let alone found a way of adapting to it.

In strictly constitutional terms, the objective of a General Election is that it gives people the chance to elect a new Member of Parliament to represent their constituency in the House of Commons. ‘Governments’ then emerge from that process once all the votes are cast and the MPs elected. The beauty – or difficulty, depending on viewpoint – with an unwritten constitution is that it can and does evolve, often in uncontrolled and unplanned ways.

Slowly but surely over recent elections, the electoral process has concentrated less and less on the process of electing 650 individual MPs, and more and more on the election of a Government. It always included that element, of course, but the relative emphasis has changed. And that change has largely been driven by the advent of mass-media. This has not been the case deliberately or consciously, but with the benefit of hindsight, there seems to be a certain inevitability about it all.

The Leaders’ debates marked one more step along the same route – from choosing a party of government to choosing a Prime Minister to lead that government. It was a significant step to take.

It’s often referred to as a ‘presidential-style’ election, since it’s an import from the US. Presidential debates work in the US because the Executive and the Legislature are elected separately. In the UK, they are not – or, at least, not in theory.

Focussing on which person will lead the next government may be just another small step from focussing on which party will lead the government. But its impact on the election at constituency level is a rather larger step away from thinking about the views of the constituency’s candidates. And it inevitably further marginalises those leaders, parties, and candidates who have no chance – or intention – of leading the next UK government.

Westminster elections have always been the hardest ones for Plaid, because we struggle to show how we are relevant at that level. That doesn’t mean that I believe we are not relevant – Plaid MPs have proved to be good constituency MPs, as well as being free to speak out in ways which the whips often ‘discourage’ from the larger parties’ members. They also represent a different perspective and a different voice – and in a good legislature, that is surely better than having only a limited range of voices being heard, particularly if that distinctive voice enjoys a significant level of support.

However, we are clearly struggling to explain why people should elect a Plaid MP when people’s attention is focussed on which of three people will be Prime Minister.

The second effect of this tight focus on the leaders was that such debate on policy as actually took place was very tightly framed around what the three of them said.  And on most significant issues, the differences between them were comparatively minor.

Those parties (not just Plaid and the SNP, but also the Greens for instance) saying something radically different on key issues found that their alternative viewpoints were also marginalised and excluded. With any debate on policy being limited to pretty minor differences, the personality of the leaders seems to have become even more significant – a triumph of style over substance.

As noted earlier, I see this as the culmination of a long-running trend – part of a process not an event, as someone else might have said. Westminster elections have been getting harder and harder for Plaid to fight against a centralising trend, and it really does look as though our traditional response to the squeeze – strong local campaigns – is increasingly ineffective in resisting the tide.

Analysing the problems we face is a great deal easier than coming up with solutions to them. We find ourselves fighting Westminster elections in a context which is extremely unfavourable to us. Whilst a change in the voting system could re-invigorate local campaigning by increasing its probable impact on the result, that is outside the direct control of Plaid. It may be the consequence of the current political situation, but I wouldn’t bet on it at this stage.

I don’t have any simple immediate solutions, but we’ve got some long and hard thinking to do about our whole approach to Westminster elections in the future.

John Dixon is Chair of Plaid Cymru and was the party’s candidate in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire in the general election

2 thoughts on “Competing in a presidential-style campaign

  1. Televised debates are wonderful for awareness of the fact of an oncoming election. But they are a disaster for nuanced discussion of the issues, especially local issues.

    Unfortunately, now that one has happened there’s probably no going back.

    It took 20 years after their first televised presidential debate for the USA to elect a Hollywood actor.

    Our descent into mediocrity will be faster.

  2. Given the increased chances of coalition goverments now and in the future, if any of the floated electoral reforms come to pass it would seem to undemocratic not to have the leaders from the marginal UK parties not being represented on the leaders debates.

    The people should be able to ask the questions of the leaders of the parties likely to make up future UK goverments, deciding the criteria of qualification will be the toughest part.

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