Last night saw the second of two debates on the subject of Britain’s membership of the European Union between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage. Opinion polls and political commentators in Westminster differ on who came out top during the two debates (the first of which was on LBC last week), though polling by both YouGov and ICM suggested that Mr Farage may have scored a convincing win against the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday. However, despite uncertainty surrounding the true victor of these contests, several thoughts can be ventured regarding what the debates’ short, and medium-term, impact is likely to be.
First, the debates demonstrated the increasing plurality of UK politics at a national level. Even just a few years ago, the prospect of a televised political debate on a major political issue such as the EU, which excluded representatives from Labour and the Conservatives, would have been seen as a mere sideshow. As such, the fact that not one, but two, such debates have taken place in the last week demonstrates the fracturing of political loyalties towards the two largest Westminster parties. This is reflected in voting intentions figures for Labour and the Conservatives in Westminster elections: whereas over three quarters of the electorate voted for either Labour or the Conservatives at the 1992 general election (incidentally, the last time the Conservatives won an overall majority), the equivalent figure in 2010 was just 65%.
This development raises further questions about how political parties should be represented in fora such as televised political debates, particularly in the run-up to next year’s general election. A UKIP win in the forthcoming European Elections on 22 May would certainly pile pressure on broadcasters to invite Mr Farage, in turn raising questions about which other parties should be included. In terms of current Westminster representation, the SNP, or the Green Party, whose sole MP Caroline Lucas was elected in 2010, arguably have stronger claims than UKIP to feature in pre-election leaders’ debates, even though they have not polled as well as UKIP in local elections and by-elections in England over recent years.
A third observation from yesterday’s debate concerns electoral strategy. Whilst many will see polls which recorded a strong victory for Mr Farage over the two debates as ominous for the Liberal Democrats’ electoral chances, Nick Clegg will be quietly pleased to have had the chance to speak to the 25% or so of the population who strongly favour Britain’s continued membership of the EU, and who Mr Clegg hopes will lend their vote to his party in May as a protest against the EU ‘Better Off Outers’.
Such a strategy is only made possible by the small turnouts recorded in European elections; in 2009 just over one third of us trouped out to the polls to vote for our MEPs. Given the electoral system which the European Elections operate under (a closed party-list form of proportional representation), just a small swing of pro-European Union voters into the Liberal Democrat camp could significantly boost their representation in the new EU Parliament and, maybe, stop the Party being wiped out in Brussels all together.
Finally, there is the question of how much this series of debates will actually inform people’s views about the European Union, if and when there is a referendum on Britain’s continued membership before the end of the decade. Despite the hype and excitement among residents of the Westminster village about the two debates, when the viewing figures for yesterday’s BBC debate are eventually revealed it is likely that the majority of the UK public spent yesterday evening either watching another TV channel or doing something completely unrelated to politics. This suggests that, for all the polls, Twitter hash tags and column inches concerned with the European issue over the past seven days, most people will only really start to engage with the issue, if at all, much nearer to the referendum itself.
The Clegg-Farage fracas can therefore be considered a sort of ‘Phoney War’, where more focus was placed on the immediate electoral implications of raising the European issue rather than the result of a future referendum several years down the road. So it is fair to say that the real debate over Britain’s future relationship with Europe has yet to begin. Judging by these early skirmishes, however, it should certainly be entertaining once it does.