Communication Skills: Leaders TV Debate 2015
L to R: Natalie Bennett (watching speaker), Nick Clegg (hand in pocket), Nigel Farage (speaking), Ed Milliband (staring ahead), Leane Wood, Nicola Sturgeon (staring ahead, David Cameron (attentive listening). iPhone photo off TV set.
Five years ago, just as this blog started I did an article entitled Mr Brown or Gordon? (linked). In that, I tried to examine the three TV debates purely in terms of communication skills, not content. It was inspired by the great analysis of the Nixon / Kennedy TV debates, The Making of The President 1960.
Here were are five years later with seven leaders, four men and three women. I list them because this blog has more “hits: from abroad than from the UK.
David Cameron, Conservative, MP, Prime Minister
Ed Milliband, Labour, MP, Leader of HM Opposition
Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat, MP, Deputy Prime Minister
Nicola Sturgeon, SNP (Scottish Nationalist,) MSP (Member Scottish Parliament), First Minister of Scotland
Nigel Farage, UKIP (UK Independence Party), MEP (Member European Parliament)
Leanne Wood, Plaid Cymru (Welsh Nationalist), Member National Assembly of Wales
Natalie Bennett, Green Party
This is how an opinion poll rated the debate the next day in terms of approval:
From The Guardian, 2 April 2015
Opinions on who “won” in the press are directly related to the political stance of each paper.
POLITICS & TACTICS
I’m strenuously avoiding party politics, but to me the debate was misconceived. The future Prime Minister is the leader of the House of Commons in Westminster. Only three of the seven are MPs so eligible, and while Nicola Sturgeon holds high office and is party leader, she is not standing for election, nor is (I believe) Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood. Natalie Bennett’s previous election high was receiving 2.7% of the vote. Nigel Farage is standing, but has previously shunned Westminster.
On the other hand, the Democratic Unionists from Ulster with more MPs than four of the speakers, did not get invited, because they were not putting up enough candidates nationally … none outside Northern Ireland. But Plaid Cymru and the SNP, while contesting a larger number of seats, are putting up no candidates outside Wales and Scotland either. To me it’s ludicrous … they should have had separate debates in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I can’t vote SNP or Plaid Cymru, so while their vote share may affect parliament, I don’t think they had any right to speak on a national TV station.
The whole thing is a shambles. One suspects that Cameron’s insistence that all seven appear was based on tactics. UKIP are putting up enough candidates, so would have to appear whatever. UKIP votes will eat into Conservative shares though there have been shocks when UKIP have done well in Labour areas. SNP and Plaid Cymru will eat into Labour votes only. The Greens? Well, that’s one seat. Brighton. Nationally, it’s a left wing vote even if’s 1 to 2%. So three parties to the left of Labour get a say. The votes they cut into will be Labour.
My opinion, based purely on communication skills, is that both Cameron and Milliband were heads and shoulders over the rest. I’d consider them the only “serious contenders” for the top job.
Cameron and Milliband separate from the rest in another way. They both went to Oxford University (see my review of the play by Laura Wade, “Posh“, from which this is taken):
Clement Attlee, Harold Macmillan, Anthony Eden, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, David Cameron, and Ed Milliband all went to Oxford University. The three post war Prime Ministers who did not attend university were Winston Churchill, James Callaghan and John Major. This makes Gordon Brown (Edinburgh University) the only post-war PM who attended a university OTHER THAN Oxford. It could be added that Brown never won an election. The two best Prime Ministers we never had, Shirley Williams and Barbara Castle both went to Oxford. All three recent Labour candidates for leadership: Ed Milliband, David Milliband, Ed Balls, went to Oxford as did Peter Mandelson. Milliband subsequently attended the London School of Economics,
Deputy PM and Liberal leader Nick Clegg went to Cambridge.
Nicola Sturgeon went to Glasgow University.
Nigel Farage went straight into stockbroking. No degree.
Natalie Bennett has three degrees: Sydney, New England, Leicester,
Leanne Wood went to the University of Glamorgan, though any snooty British lecturer would point out that it became a university in 1992. As she was born in 1971, she must have started when it was a polytechnic.
Public schools (old school tie):
Cameron (Eton), Clegg (Westminster), Farage (Dulwich College).
Milliband attended a state comprehensive, but it has to be said one in the “postcode” good schools lottery, set twixt Hampstead and Swiss Cottage.
Sturgeon and Wood attended state schools.
All four men wore, as suggested in Making of The President 1960, dark suits, light shirts, ties. Clegg, Cameron and Farage went for crass party colour identification … yellow for Clegg, blue for Cameron, purple for Farage. Milliband, smarting from the Daily Mail’s love of collocational slurs as in Red Ed avoided party-political red, and chose a silvery grey tie which looked as if it had escaped from morning dress at a wedding.
Women have far wider choice. They can’t read up on Making of The President and get advice, and also we judge women much more on appearance than we do men. Sturgeon and Wood went for red, Sturgeon a jacket with high shoulders and Wood for a red frock with black cardie. Bennett preferred a mossy beige masculine jacket style to all out green. It made her look indistinctive.
Sturgeon was rated as “strong, powerful,” and to me the jacket with raised shoulders and severe cut, and her hair which looks like a helmet contributed to the image. Studies of football suggests teams wearing red are statistically the most successful. She had power dressed, and I think Angela Merkel has to be the role model. To the Saturday Daily Mail that was interpreted as “The most dangerous woman in Britain” as the front page headline.
Daily Mail, Saturday. They manage to get that “Red Ed” slur in the headline too. iPhoto picture in the shop. I did not buy a copy.
The old saying goes Politics is showbiz for ugly people.
A lot of analysis has been done in the USA, trying to work out whether the best-looking candidate wins. It has to be an advantage, however, looking back at the list of British prime ministers, none of them is going to win a beauty contest. I saw Bill Clinton plus guards striding through Mayfair once and the palpable charisma was at high rock superstar level. It moved with him like a cloud. In the 1997 “Blair landslide” he had youth on his side, and many thought him good-looking, making the effect of twenty years of greed and lies on his visage now all the more noticeable. Clegg is the most conventionally good-looking which gave him that 2010 advantage. It’s dissipated into blandness.
Cameron and Milliband don’t differ much. Milliband is a cartoonists joy, but I’m told by people who have seen him in the flesh, that he doesn’t actually look like Wallace from Wallace and Gromit, and that he is surprisingly taller than expected and surprisingly much less geeky. It’s worth mentioning, because an American survey thought the taller candidate was at advantage.
Cameron’s mouth is very small, but he gets a major boost standing next to his wife, the reflected glow of her attractiveness boosting him.
Farage is, let’s face it, a fellow with frog-like features. The fact that of the four men only his hair looks grey might be a tribute to lack of personal vanity.
With the women, I’m on dodgy ground. Yes, it is awful that we judge women so much more on looks. But we do. And we’ve just judged the guys, so here goes. Sturgeon looks stern and aggressive. However, for her voters being stern and aggressive to English public school boys will not be seen as negative. She always looks serious. Not a lot of laughs there.
Wood looks, frankly, ineffectual and wet. Bennett is unattractive. Let’s leave it there. Only The Guardian, a newspaper for which she worked, awarded her any credit.
VOICE and ACCENT
Cameron and Clegg are straight clear RP. Not the daft “advanced RP” of Prince Charles, but both good examples of clear communication with no regional marking. However Clegg’s insistence that “create” is pronounced “crate” and “created” as “crated” really, really annoys me. Cameron says “Cree-ate.”
I’d place Milliband as RP too. His somewhat odd vocal mannerisms are personal issues, not accent. But he also does that annoying “crate” for “create” a very recent usage.
Farage went to public school, but there’s an estuary edge, probably a city stockbroking wide-boy estuary edge.
Nicola Sturgeon – a cutaway to disapproval, I thnk
Sturgeon’s Scottish accent is harsh. The English have always loved the soft “educated Scots” accent of say Alistair Darling, or even Gordon Brown. Sturgeon is more Glaswegian, which again sounds aggressive to English ears, but why should she care about that? Surveys of reaction to accents in the past have classed Scots accents as being trustworthy, but not “likable.” I’m sure she’s OK with that.
Wood’s Welsh accent is South Wales valleys. If I may be critical, I should say that is exactly the accent of my maternal family, though my mother, shipped off to skivvy in Bournemouth hotels at fifteen years old, had lost it entirely. It is not the prestige poetic Welsh accent of the great Welsh actors, and surveys of accent perception has shown that it not liked outside its own area. It is held to be one reason why Neil Kinnock lost the 1983 election. David and Ben Crystal’s recent book, You Say Potato: A Book About Accents (2014), notes that newsreader Huw Edwards has greatly increased general liking of Welsh accents, but one can also note that way back in Shakespeare’s time, Welsh was considered an accent to mock. I hesitate to say she bleated and whined, because it strays into the content of her talk, but she continually bemoaned how hard done-by Wales was compared to England, and indeed that Wales did not enjoy the bonus advantages that Scotland enjoys in national finance. I’ll add that’s also true of constituency size. Scotland is over-represented in parliament for its population. I thought Wood was fair enough in her complaints, but they came across as moaning, while Sturgeon’s nationalism came across as righteous indignation. So it’s not content, but delivery style.
Bennett was born in Australia, and her accent slips in and out of Australian vowels, making it jarring compared to a straightforward Australian accent. It’s also a “foreign” accent, even if Commonwealth, and it will count against her just as an Advanced RP accent would not win you votes in Sydney.
Best voice? Cameron.
Clegg speaking, Farage staring, Milliband listening
On TV, cutaways mean that what you do while listening is of paramount importance. Viewers of the weekly Question Time know that the editor has a camera on each participant and will cut away to extreme reactions. The Conservative minister Anna Soubry is a regular guest because no one shakes their head, frowns or looks exasperated more hammily theatrically than she does when someone else is speaking. Interesting reactions draw the camera.
Cameron and Milliband both shot way ahead of the pack for simple attentive listening. Both looked at speakers and appeared to be listening attentively. This is a skill. Milliband loses points for having “dead eyes.” It may be TV and pupil colour, depth or whatever. But his eyes don’t work for him. I felt he had been instructed to look at the speaker and listen, but Cameron has a greater range of listening facial expressions. Cameron also always looks as if concentrating 100%.
Milliband’s eyes never look animated
Farage faced front with a smug fixed grin. Clegg kept one hand in his pocket, trying perhaps to look relaxed, though it came across as fiddling nervously with his balls.
Wood looked out of place (well, she was) but won points by reacting immediately after Farage’s statement that 60% of HIV sufferers treated in Britain were from abroad. All of them attacked Farage on this the next day, but Wood gave the instant outrage on the day.
Sturgeon has a heavy frown. Cameron used television reaction well when his triumphant smile was captured as Milliband faced a triple attack from the three women to Labour’s left over austerity.
NAMES and TITLES
See Mr Brown or Gordon? Have they learned? They had by the third debate in 2010.
Briefly, first names reinforce the public perception that all politicians are the same, and whatever their party, they’re members of a self-serving club from which we are excluded. I didn’t make notes throughout, but I did enough in bits. I went out and made tea, I answered the phone, I went to the loo. This is not scientific.
This one is complicated compared to 2010 (for non-British readers) by our school system historically. In girls schools, first names were always used. In boys schools, family names were used: Smith, Jones, Viney. So we still have an automatic tendency to us first names for women.
DAVID CAMERON … Fascinating. he did just what Gordon Brown did in 2010, and look where it got Gordon Brown. He used Nick, Nicola, Leanne, Natalie and Nigel. In the bit I was annotating he said “Nigel” six times. He said “Ed” just once. Otherwise it was always “Ed Milliband.” This, like Brown in 2010, is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland speaking. Like a friendly headmaster, he uses first names. Patronising? Obviously. But not to Ed Milliband … except for the one slip … he did not want to imply that they were friends. In that he did better than Gordon Brown.
ED MILLIBAND … he cleverly used “If I’m the next Prime Minister …” repeatedly, because he has been told people don’t see him as prime minister, so he hammered home the subliminal association. Good move.
On names he was inconsistent. In the section I annotated he used “David Cameron” nine times, but he also used “David” five times. Poor, because he should have maintained distance, The others got first names … Nigel, Nick. He also did a “Nigel Farage.” In the section I annotated, while mentioning Cameron a total of fourteen times, he used Nick and Nigel once each, but I didn’t note any Nicola, Leane or Natalie. Not dignifying his opposition to the left with a mention? Or … heaven forbid … sexist?
NICK CLEGG didn’t say much, but when he did it was “Nigel Farage” in full three times.
NIGEL FARAGE used the respectful and distancing “The Prime Minister” three times, and David Cameron (in full) twice. He used one “Ed Milliband” and one “Ed.” Not a single “David.” We are not pals.
NICOLA STURGEON used “Nigel Farage” four times, “Nigel” never. She used “David” three times and “David Cameron” once. Perhaps fuelling speculation on the next Saturday that in spite of all the bluster about the SNP supporting anyone whatsoever against Conservative, she might secretly favour a Cameron government. Two “Ed Milliband,” one “Ed.” One “Nick,” one “Leane.”
NATALIE BENNETT used “Nigel Farage”, “David Cameron” but also “Nicola.”
LEANE WOOD – all I noted was a “Nigel Farage” (in her impassioned attack on his HIV statement).
No one it seems, really wants to be pals with Nigel. Nigel is the least popular lad in the playground. From his point of view, I’d think that’s a positive. He’s against all six of them on Europe. His “nasty bit” on HIV was apparently carefully researched and considered.
I think we knew when we started that the race is Cameron v Miliband. That didn’t change. Both are the only credible possibles.
The Times: Saturday. Samantha Cameron, David’s greatest asset on the right.
The press thought Nicola Sturgeon “won” and Nigel Farage did better than expected. That may well upset this unpredictable election, but whatever happens, however voters decide or coalition deals are done, I think the end, the key to #10, is a two horse race.
While researching the bios briefly, I noticed a surprise link between the right and left. Both Leanne Wood and Nigel Farage have been told off for insulting the monarchy. Leanne Wood referred to the Queen as “Mrs Windsor” in a Welsh Assembly debate. Nigel Farage refused to stand up when Prince Charles arrived to speak to the European Parliament about the environment.
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