Friday, 16 April 2010

Clegg receives the benefits of airtime far outweighing his party's proportion of the vote or seats


Each of the three leaders did well and the content and style of the debate was a credit to the men, their parties and our democratic system. Of the three, Gordon Brown performed the best although this wasn't what the audience thought (according to the polls). He was more rigorous in his debating style, he got the only joke in and for him, he looked very relaxed. Unlike Cameron whose frown was popping off his forehead every time the camera caught him getting frustrated at what his opponents were saying. Nick Clegg has a tendency towards sounding self-righteous. He is a leader who can turn what on paper looks like a rousing call to arms into what sounds when uttered like a sub-6th form debating club rant, in which every other word is emphasised.

But the audience took a differing view. I suspect that part of the reason why he scored so well in the polls and focus groups is that so many of the public are (sadly) so uninterested in politics that the novelty of seeing someone other than Brown and Cameron meant that he picked up an amount of support disproportionate to the quality of his arguments or his debating style. This is a phenomenon akin to when Italy do well in the Six Nations. Or when a Championship minnow makes it to the FA Cup Final. One's immediate response is, "wow, where did that come from? Aren't they supposed to be rubbish compared to the big beasts". People instinctively back the newcomer to the ring, particularly when rather than getting knocked out in round one, they make it to the end and acquit themselves as well as their opponents.

Nonetheless, Clegg did very well indeed and deserves credit for establishing that there are alternatives to the Labour-Conservative tectonic plates. But it does raise an interesting question, which other smaller parties are no doubt well aware of: in receiving a third of the airtime last night, Clegg and his party received a level of free advertising far outweighing their representation in Parliament. They have roughly 10% of the seats (against 55% for Labour and 30% for the Tories. So in real terms, their coverage last night was three times what it ought to be. Before supporters of proportional representation lynch me, let's do the calculation based on the percentage of the popular vote. Labour won with 35.3%, the Tories came second with 32.3% and the Liberal Democrats won 22.1%. Even here, the Lib Dems received about 30% more coverage than their popular vote would have justified.

Of course third parties must be heard in order to provide balanced coverage for the electorate. However, we move into uncharted and murky waters if we extend the principle of giving minority parties disproportionate television airtime. Take UKIP, who in the 2005 General Election won 2.2% of the popular vote (although no seats). If we apply the first-past-the-post ratios then they ought to have received 6.8% of the airtime last night (or 6.12 minutes). Now over 5 minutes of airtime when up 20 million people might be watching is not to be sniffed at. When you think of the breakthrough possibly achieved by Nick Clegg, you can only imagine how someone like Nigel Farage (as opposed to his new party leader, Lord Pearson) could achieve in five minutes what thousands of posters would fail to. If we make the calculation based on popular vote then UKIP's 1% would translate into 30% more coverage, or 1.17 minutes. Again, nearly as much as each party leader had for their concluding pitches last night.

Take the odious BNP. who won 0.7% of the popular vote in 2005. This would merit 2.1 minutes or 0.91 minutes. In front of 20 million people, this could would be a useful platform for the far right party.

But these calculations are based upon the last General Election result. If we were to base them on the most recent national election - the European Parliament election of 2009, then the results are very interesting.

UKIP won more of the popular vote than Labour (16.5% to Labour's 15.7%). This would equate to either 44.5 minutes (first-past-the-poast) or 19.3 minutes (popular vote).

The BNP won 6.2% of the popular vote, equating to 16.7 minutes (first-past-the-post) or 7.7 minutes (popular vote).

Similar calculations can be made for the Greens and other smaller parties, but there isn't space here. The important point to take away from this is that, inevitably, smaller parties stand to gain most from TV appearances where they receive coverage disproportionate to their size in electoral or popular vote terms. When such an idiosyncrasy benefits a personable, intelligent person such as Nick Clegg, the effect is described by pundits as anything from "ground-breaking" , "game-changing", "a triumph", "a boost for our democracy". I'm not sure such hyperbole would be used were such an opinion poll boost to be won by UKIP, or much worse, the BNP.

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