1 May 2015Trust me I'm a party leaderImage used under creative commons from Coventry City Council https://www.flickr.com/photos/coventrycc/7140668329
David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg took their places, separately, before a special Question Time audience to make one last big pitch to the country before the general election on 7 May. They all seemed intent on communicating the same core message: "trust me". In the coming week there will be more politicking to come but this event, agreed to in the absence of agreement on a final head to head debate, provider voters with a chance to hear from the two men who are likely to be prime minister, and the one man who could potentially hold decisive seats in determining who makes it to Number 10.
As one of the 23 per cent of evangelicals who have yet to decide how to vote I watched with interest. I wasn't expecting to see anything in shining lights but I was hoping for some insight, so what did I learn?
1. The format worked After the failure of the party leaders to agree to a series of head to head debates there was some suggestion that this was a second rate alternative, after the seven way debate last month I expressed my frustration that David Cameron and Ed Miliband wouldn't be debating each other.
However, while the polls have already given a narrow victory on the night to David Cameron, the audience earned its spurs, putting each of the leaders under hostile questioning and given the space to press them when they (repeatedly) didn't answer questions. All of the leaders are used to meeting groups of voters including those who passionately disagree, and sometimes question and answer sessions can be rather soft, giving the leaders an easy ride. Last night's session did not give any of them an easy ride
2. The leaders dodged Because of the success of the format it became obvious when each of the party leaders refused to answer a question despite their mouths opening and words coming out. Whether it was Cameron on welfare reform, Miliband on receiving support from the SNP, or Nick Clegg on the European Union, each of them repeatedly reformulated the same answer but it was not quite responding to the question asked.
David Cameron and Ed Miliband were both grilled as to who they would talk to if they didn't get a majority, and both of them did more than dodge it, they looked in the face of the questioner and rejected the premise of the question. 'I'm going for a majority' they declared. Nick Clegg took a slightly different approach prompted perhaps by the acceptance that saying he's going for a majority might be slightly mocked, instead he tried to position himself and the Liberal Democrats as a civilising force for either Labour or the Conservatives.
Audience members heckled both Cameron and Miliband with the offer of their respect if they were at least honest about what they would do if they didn't win a majority. Neither took the offer.
3. Little things matter Will #Milistumble matter? It shouldn't but it might. Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband are hamstrung by narratives which refuse to budge, Cameron is seen as arrogant and aloof, Miliband is seen as awkward and stumbling. This means when either of them do something which fits into this narrative it gains far more traction than the many things they might do which counter the trend.
4. Who you vote for matters This might be an abundantly obvious point but listening to the audience yesterday, especially those frustrated with Nick Clegg for taking the Liberal Democrats into a coalition with the Conservatives, I realised afresh that while not everyone will vote for a winner, every vote counts.
In a parliamentary system like ours it is fairly easy to see candidates easing into their seats in Westminster with colossal majorities and think many votes are wasted. This election should serve as a reminder that no seats are ever safe, in Scotland former MPs who thought they had a seat for life are fighting for their political future if they are not going to be looking for a new job next week. The last five years have also demonstrated the impact of protest votes and the effect your vote can have, whether or not it is intentioned. If voters are annoyed that having voted Liberal Democrat they didn't get a Labour led government they might be more cautious about how they use their vote.
5. The public care The UK wide public might not be quite at Scottish referendum levels of excitement but interest in the election is picking up. This means that while the leaders have been campaigning for months, and doing nothing but for the past five weeks, this last week might matter most. It's also relevant that since the short campaign started at the end of March the polls have not moved. They show one party up, but are then replaced with another showing them slipping back. The looming dominance of the SNP in Scotland means that electoral arithmetic will make it hard for either the Conservatives or Labour to win a majority of seats, and therefore the success of other parties becomes more important.
In the final week of the campaign the parties are asking us to vote for them, and in asking for our vote they are asking us to trust them. The public cannot be involved in every decision governments make so trust is essential, and it will often have to be placed in imperfect people and institutions. I still want more vision from our politicians, but when I come to vote I will need to temper my tendency for cynicism with at least a little bit of trust.