Debating the debate - Clegg ahead on points?

Last night's historic TV debate was much better than it might have been, says the ILM's Penny De Valk.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

So we’ve entered the age of the live TV leadership debate. Was it an historic piece of television that could change the outcome of the election, or an over-rehearsed affair straight-jacketed by a strict format and rules?

In the event, it was rather more fast-paced and engaging than predicted – maybe not edge of seat stuff but it did result in some lively debate.

What surprised most people was that the third party candidate, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, stole the show.  Far from appearing like a rank outsider, marginalised as the big boys fought out the key points, Mr Clegg had ideas, depth to his policies and offered a clear alternative. He took the initiative and came across as energetic, eloquent, and sincere. Furthermore, he spoke directly to camera rather than to the studio, so his delivery looked more authentic and personal than that of his two better-known rivals.

A difficult gig for the intense and brooding incumbent, but Gordon Brown didn’t do too badly. He repeatedly referenced his experience using the first person to emphasise personal credibility and experience, relying specifically on his understanding of the economy.  However, although Brown had clearly worked hard on his communication skills, he failed to stare down the barrel of the camera to the watching millions or engage the studio audience, and this will have cost him.

Much was expected of Cameron, the charismatic young pretender, but he didn‘t meet those expectations. Usually at ease in front of the cameras, his charisma seemed to have been stolen by Clegg and he looked at a loss as to what to do about it. The potential power of the middle spot had been discussed after Cable's winning performance at the Chancellors’ debate, but this didn't seem to help Cameron. He provided lots of personal examples and apologised for the expenses scandal and behaviour of MPs, but had little to offer by way of detailed policy and could not compete with the energy and honesty of ‘the third man’ Clegg.

Last month we surveyed over 2,000 practising managers and asked them to asses the party leaders on the five fundamental aspects of leadership – ability, personal integrity, vision, communication, and engagement. The results revealed that Brown needed to improve his communication and engagement skills; Cameron needed to boost his integrity rating; and Clegg needed to prove he had the experience to be king-maker in a Hung Parliament. Brown and Cameron still have much to improve, but it will be interesting to see whether Clegg’s surprising performance will enhance his ‘ability’ score.

An hour and a half of non-stop telly was a pretty gruelling marathon for the viewer, however – it remains to be seen whether the nation’s enthusiasm for this new format can be sustained through two more such sessions. Or what difference it will make to the outcome on 6th May.


Penny de Valk is the Chief Executive of the Institute of Leadership and Management


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