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Old media, new media and presentation skills changing the face of British Politics

A complex equation of old media influence, new media influence, and plain old fashioned presentation skills are in the process of changing British Politics forever.  I don't usually get in to political issues  here (and please note my disclosure at the end), but there are some important lessons to learn from  the UK's first General Election that has been fought in the glare of Twitter, blogs, instant communication and TV Leader Debates.  For those outside the UK, you need to understand that we have a "first past the post" electoral system that always favours the two main parties, Labour and Conservative, which have been swapping the power of government for the last 65 years.   The closest we have come to their duopoly being broken was when, in the long run up to the 1983 election, the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party formed the Alliance and at one point started to achieve over 50% of the popular vote.  People tend to forget that the Conservative Government of the time under Margaret Thatcher was deeply unpopular, didn't look like they would make a second term in office, and it seemed that the mould of British Politics would be broken for good, but the Falklands War intervened.  Margaret Thatcher reversed her course and become the popular War leader who torpedoed the possibility of change and won.   The Liberals and the SDP eventually merged to form the Liberal Democrat Party in 1988, and are currently the 3rd largest party  getting 1 in 4 of the vote at the last election, but holding only 63 seats in Parliament.

Up until a week ago most pundits would have predicted a Conservative win on 6 May, but the key turning point happened some time earlier in the year when the 3 main parties agreed to 3 television debates where each party leader would have equal billing.  Up to that point, it was too easy for the 2 main parties to dismiss the 3rd as irrelevant, and their press coverage was  generally very limited in any case.  In particular, Rupert Murdoch's newspapers like The Sun or The Times wouldn't give them any air time at all or even bother to send reporters to a LibDem annual conference.  That all changed when 10 million TV viewers tuned in to watch.  The viewing public is used to programmes like X Factor and Britain's Got Talent, and so the style of delivery and personality of the 3 contenders suddenly becomes much more important than particular policies.  In the week before the debate Nick Clegg subjected himself to being grilled by Jeremy Paxman, our most aggressive political TV interviewer, and survived.  The other 2 leaders didn't.  In that previous week Nick Clegg did a press conference every morning to hone his arguments through yet more journalists' questioning.  The other 2 leaders didn't do that every day.  That public scrutiny meant that Clegg went in to the debates better prepared with his answers to tough questions, and must have contributed to him looking more relaxed and confident on the night than either Gordon Brown or David Cameron.  When it comes to presentation skills I've always been schooled to look as many of the audience in the eye as you can.  Nick Clegg focused straight in to the camera lens and the 10 million TV viewers rather than the few hundred audience in the room.  That combined with his natural, slightly faltering style of delivery compounded to make him come across  with more authenticity.  It was in contrast to Cameron's slick delivery, and Brown's staid and studied delivery.  By the morning it was very clear who had won the first debate, resulting in a 10 point jump for the LibDems in the polls, but the more significant effect is that a lot of that huge TV audience were really seeing the third party and Nick Clegg for the first time.  LibDem press conferences following the debate were suddenly packed with journalists, including the Rupert Murdoch papers and foreign correspondents for the first time.  The extra attention has caused a significant shift.  The genie is out of the bottle, and the 3rd party will never be dismissed or ignored by the Press in the same way again.  

The polls in the last few days have shown either the Conservatives or LibDems in the lead with around 32%, and Labour in third place with around 28%.  However, with our strange voting system, the pundits project that means that Labour would get  270 seats, Conservatives 244 seats and the LibDems 97 seats.  This means no party will have overall control in what we call a "hung Parliament".  Even the jargon presents a negative picture - what's so bad about consensus and coalition government?  In times of war we call that a National Government and consider it a good thing.   Would it be such a bad way of tackling the current crisis?

Over the last few days the press have been highlighting that the party with the lowest vote will actually get the most seats, and so we could end up with Gordon Brown remaining as Prime Minister even if he loses.  Actually that kind of unfair result has been happening for decades, but the facts of our unfair voting system have finally been brought in to sharp focus  for the general public.  It is now accepted by the average person in a way it never has been before.  Is "first past the post" on its last legs?  The price for the LibDems to be included in a coalition with either main party would certainly include some sort of electoral reform and change British Politics forever.  

Social Media has had an effect too, and not just with Rory Cellan-Jones of the BBC monitoring Twitter sentiment during the first debate, or charting the online surge for the LibDems afterwards.  The Electoral Commission have been working with Facebook to promote more voter registration.  By the deadline of Tuesday this week, over 450,000 new voters had downloaded the form and registered to vote.  Many of those will be students and young people who have never been engaged in the political process before, and that's got to be good for democracy.  Another factor is The Digital Economy Bill -  a major piece of legislation that was forced through on the last day of this parliament without enough debate and scrutiny.  Measures in the legislation to restrict filesharing requested by vested interests in the music business have been implemented in a ludicrous way.  JP Rangaswami writes:
"The industry lobby did their work well. Now we have to get used to a world where filesharing and downloading are both wrongly equated with theft, where damaging action can be taken on mere suspicion, and where dictatorial powers may be assumed almost at will. All to try and hold on to a dying business model."
Most technology savvy people I know oppose the Bill, and Nick Clegg has garnered favour with that "geek" vote by coming out and saying :
"It badly needs to be repealed, and the issues revisited."
His party has followed this with a #geekthevote campaign and a Facebook Group.  

So tonight, the second Prime Ministerial debate, chaired by Adam Boulton of Sky News,  and also broadcast on the  BBC News Channel, will major on foreign policy.  As before Nick Clegg has prepared by taking a press conference every morning this week.  The other 2 leaders haven't.  Nick has had a lot more scrutiny of his policies, tougher questioning, as well as having to contend with some interesting press stories today.  My own prediction for tonight is that he is gaining in confidence and so will keep his cool and continue with another good performance.  David Cameron and Gordon Brown have to, and probably will, do better, but I expect a lot more negative and personal attacks which won't be well received by the general public.  I don't think there will be any clear winner this time, but that will be enough to consolidate the third party's new position in the spotlight, and ahead of Labour in the polls.  The TV debates have changed the game of British Politics forever.  Nick Clegg had everything to lose in that first debate, but he prepared better than his opponents.  Some good, old fashioned presentation skills and an authentic voice made sure his message was taken seriously.  When you add the social media dimension, and the fact that it feels like more young voters will actually get to the polling booth and make a choice, then we are definitely in new territory.  A coalition seems likely, and that means some form of proportional representation will  be the result, and British Politics will be changed for good.

Update:  I spotted Doug Saunders of Canada's Globe and Mail live blogging last night's debate.  His infographics team produced this chart which summarizes the situation well (with slightly different poll data and seat projections).

Disclosure:  Outside of the enterprise 2.0 and Cloud Computing world, I'm a member of the Liberal Democrat Party, an elected Parish Councillor, and Chairman of Sandridge Parish Council in St. Albans.