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2015 Election Debate #1

Who won and why?

Last week saw the first leaders debate of the 2015 general election campaign and the only one to feature the heads of the seven major parties across the entire country - minus the Democratic Unionist Party who were unceremoniously omitted.
Debating London was fortunate enough to be hosted in the London Chamber of Commerce by Junior Chamber International, a volunteer network for young professionals, and accompanied by the BBC World Service as we screened the debate live. When our guests (over 80 of them on the night) weren't being interviewed by the Beeb on their reaction to the leaders' claims and counter claims, they were busy casting their vote on our new mobile website thanks to tech startup, 'Do You Agree'.
The predictions
The evening began with a talk on what we could expect to hear during the debate from three of our most seasoned debaters: Paul Carroll (Founding President of 104 London Debaters Toastmasters), Shaughan Dolan (campaign manager for peace building charity Conscience), and Jason Maude (co-founder of Debating London).
Paul talked to us about the rhetorical devices most commonly used by politicians to disguise logical inconsistencies in their arguments. In addition to the use of soundbites and the deployment of Aristotle's three pillars of persuasion, he told us the device to look out for the most was the pivot techniqueThis is the 'art' of responding to a difficult question by addressing a different subject altogether. You can view Paul's presentation for yourself here, but he recommends you read George Orwell's essay on Politics and the English Languagefirst to truly understand it.
Shaughan introduced us to the wonderful world of logical fallacies - otherwise known as the best of the worst arguments politicians normally make to win over their audiences and smear the opponents. He gave us some classic examples of fallacies commonly used by British politicians, such as: the 'ad hominem' (attacking the person rather than their argument) and the 'false choice' (otherwise known as TINA - there is no alternative). You can see Shaughan's favourite fallacies from his presentation here and for a more comprehensive list, I recommend the website:
Finally, Jason gave us a 10 minute crash course in how to compare different policies. Channeling the frustration of many voters, no doubt, he talked of how politicians refused to engage with other parties' proposals and explain clearly why their ideas were better, resorting instead to the types of obfuscation and mud-slinging highlighted by Paul and Shaughan. Citing the rival Conservative and Labour plans for the NHS as an example, with the Tories promising a seven day GP service and Labour promising GP appointments within 48 hours, but both failing to explain why one was better than the other. You can read Jason's impressive presentation in full here.
The arguments
Thanks to the ever-diligent work of our summariser in chief, Jason Maude, below you will find the key claims made by each leader on each of the topics covered during the debate, including the economy, the NHS, and immigration. We left out the fourth section (the future of the UK) as the debate became so disjointed at this point, making it very difficult to compare each party's arguments in any meaningful way.  
on the economy...
on the NHS...
on immigration...
The results
We asked our audience to vote twice in this debate, once before it started and again just after it finished, in order to measure the impact of public opinion of the leaders' arguments. We also asked them to vote continuously throughout the debate on how much they agreed or disagreed with each leader, enabling us to track fluctuations in support for each party in real time.
The total number of voters shown was lower than the total number of guests as not everyone was able or willing to cast their vote online, while some people left before the debate finished at 10 pm, hence the lower number of final votes.
Using our in-debate voting app, we were able to track the fluctuations in our guests' opinions in real time. This is what we found.
  • The audience agreed most with the Greens on issues they considered to be important to them during the second half of the debate, in particular the segment on immigration. In this segment, Green party leader Natalie Bennett extolled the benefits of immigration and chastised the government for not taking in enough Syrian refugees. 
  • It was during the immigration section also that suffered UKIP suffered its biggest spike in the number of audience voters who strongly disagreed with them. The boos that rang out throughout the room during Nigel Farage's remarks on immigrants with HIV using the NHS would suggest this was one of the arguments that specifically turned people off.
  • The Liberal Democrats failed to retain let alone improve on their performance in the preliminary vote, despite the fact that most of the audience agreed with Nick Clegg most of the time. However, the data tells us that they only 'somewhat agreed' with him most of the time, while few people strongly agreed with him on anything.
  • Ed Miliband clearly made a big impression on the audience who strongly agreed with his remarks on immigration and the future of the UK after a lacklustre first half, but - perhaps due to the intense scrutiny he faced that that the smaller parties did not - he lost ground on Natalie Bennett when it came to the final vote.
  • Nichola Sturgeon's impact, much discussed in the popular media after the debate, was also present in our analysis, though barely anyone voted for her Scottish Nationalist Party, which is understandable considering every one of our guests lives in London.
  • Leanne Wood's strategy of talking directly to Welsh voters (and ignoring the rest of us) clearly worked with her Plaid Cymru barely registering in our analysis either in a positive or negative light.
  • Finally, spare a thought for the Conservatives, with whom everyone strongly agreed most of the time on almost every issue - such is the reality of being the larger of only two parties in a seven way debate with a record to defend and an image problem.
Lessons learned
The immediate lesson of the debate was that each of our experts' predictions were (unfortunately) fulfilled. The leaders did consistently veer off the question that was actually asked, we saw logical fallacies abound, expertly summed up in a review of the debate posted on The Critique Archivesand Labour and the Conservatives both promoted their respective policies on GP appointments without saying which was better and why.
But what else did we learn?
Image courtesy of the Daily Star newspaper
  • Multi-panelist debates are good for democracy, but bad for decision making.
    If the Greens, the SNP, Plaid, and UKIP had not been included in the debate, we would have heard nothing of the impact of the election on the UK's disparate regions and the consensus of the larger parties on issues such as the EU and the need for spending cuts would have gone largely unchallenged. However, the lack of time required for proper scrutiny of each party's promises means that we still have no idea who has the best policies, a conclusion born out by national polling that shows the debate had no clear winner and little impact on voting intentions.
  • Ed Miliband is going to get a very very rough ride in the second debate.
    One of the reasons David Cameron took such a rollicking in the first debate is that he was the Prime Minister and so had to focus on defending what he had already achieved, which came under constant attack from the rest of the panel. In the second debate, he and Nick Clegg will both be absent, which means you can expect the remaining parties to gun for the Labour leader instead as the sole 'establishment figure'.
  • Nigel Farage is still one to watch.
    Despite an uncharacteristically poor performance in the first debate in which he appeared hysterical and isolated at times, he remains a wild card in the second debate, which will be his last in this election campaign. I was once asked asked by a journalist what makes a great debater. I replied: "the ability to explain how the world works in short logical sequences that anyone can understand". Nigel Farage is better at this than almost anyone else on the panel as he displayed in devastating fashion in last year's EU debate with Nick Clegg. Ironically, the leaders who were doing more to hold him to account for his more controversial views in the first debate (and saving the larger parties blushes in the process) were Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood.
Watch the 2nd debate with us on Thursday 16th April
We will be teaming up with JCI London again to screen both of the upcoming leaders debates on Thursday 16th April and Thursday 30th. The event is free to attend and all you need to reserve your place is book your free ticket here. We'd love to see you there.
By Tony Koutsoumbos, debate trainer and founder of Debating London.
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