The most recent Spectator Debate – Leave the wealthy alone - delivered a spectacular contest from the illustrious halls of Milton Court at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Featuring a star-studded panel of outspoken thinkers and chaired by the Godfather of political commentary himself, Andrew Neil, the event promised much and didn’t disappoint.
In the end, the proposition team, led by Fraser Nelson, Toby Young, and William Cash won out with a close but still decisive victory, beating their opponents: Owen Jones, Jack Monroe, and Molly Cato Scott by 232 votes to 160. The results of a preliminary vote taken before the debate showed a majority of the room was already on their side, suggesting that the opposition never had a look in, but I know that’s not true. They could have won their audience over if they’d taken a different approach.
I know this because I have been running public debates for the last six years and in that time, I have seen even the largest gaps in public opinion narrowed and even reversed in the space of a 90 minute debate. People have changed their minds on everything from the foreign policy of George W Bush, the national DNA database, and the use of censorship to tackle religious extremism.
Why did the opposition team lose?
They forgot that opposing a motion in a debate is like a game of poker: to win you need to play the hand of your opponent, not just your own. They actually had plenty of good arguments, but they stuck rigidly to their own case with only Owen Jones making much of an effort to critique the other side. They were also too reliant on tactics that only work if the audience already agree with you, such as Jack Monroe’s appeal for empathy with the plight of the poor to Molly Scott Cato expecting us to agree that her arguments were true because an expert said so.
So how do you win over a tough crowd?
What would the losing team have done differently if they had been following these rules?
They would have started off by using the proposition team’s own definition to explain what each side needed to prove to win the debate. In this case, Fraser Nelson defined the wealthy as the super-rich and declared that as long as they were paying the taxes they owed, they should be left alone. So, before Owen started making the case for higher taxes or blaming the rich for the plight of the poor, he would have stood up and said in no uncertain terms: “if Fraser Nelson and his team cannot prove that the super-rich are paying the taxes they owe in full, for whatever reason, then they will have lost this debate.” If he had begun his speech this way, then his barbs about dodgy accountants and pay inequality would have packed a much bigger punch.
Next they would have highlighted how Toby Young agreed with them in his speech that the super-rich owed a debt to society through their access to state infrastructure. They would also have given him and Fraser Nelson credit for agreeing with them that economic inequality was a serious problem