Three-D Issue 24: The uninvited guests of TV debates: emotions, candidates’ families and friends

Morgane KimmichMorgane Kimmich
London South Bank University

With Cameron refusing to participate without the Green party, Miliband and Clegg calling the Conservatives’ bluff, and minor parties now demanding to be invited, it is more than ever uncertain whether televised leader debates will be part of the 2015 election. So what exactly would we miss out on if the debates don’t take place? Part of my doctoral research on the 2010 debates can help answer that question, and more.

Many of the topics discussed in 2010 would likely still feature in 2015 – the slow economic recovery, the potential collapse of the NHS, the increasing feeling of insecurity linked to the rise of terrorism in Europe and elsewhere. These are predictable themes that candidates, maybe helped by aides directly coming from the land of debates (a.k.a. America), would rehearse again and again. But as well as political topics, we would also miss out on the uninvited guests of TV debates: emotions, personal stories, family and friends.

A close look what was said and how during the debates five years ago shows that candidates displayed emotions such as empathy, love, anger or fear, and also told many personal stories about themselves, their families or people they had met. Some of these emotions – particularly empathy and anger – were used much more than others such as fear and hope. More than expressing their feelings, candidates made some emotions theirs. Brown predominantly used negative emotions, especially fear. Clegg preferred less risky emotions such as disappointment, humour and pride. Cameron alternated between positive emotions such as love, pride and happiness and negatives ones such as anger and shame. The Tory leader was also the most emotional candidate as he used emotions and personal stories the most throughout the 2010 debates.

The reason behind the use of specific emotions is hard to discern without asking the leaders directly. However, using some emotions over others may have been in candidates’ best interest. For Brown, who saw Cameron as his main opponent, spreading fear and concern over the Tory leader helped him divert attention from his own record and point, instead, at the weaknesses of others’ manifestoes.

The surprise guest at the 2010 debates, Clegg was trying to surf the wave of recent media attention that he and the Lib Dem were enjoying. It was therefore in his interest to appear cool, not excessively angry or happy, in order to embody an alternative. Cameron apparently had a different idea in mind: he used the debates much like a job interview in which he could show his skills and prove to voters that he was human too. The Tory leader demonstrated his empathy with British people and reinforced his family man image by telling personal stories, but also put forward his leadership potential and strength by showing anger and shame when deemed appropriate. In addition to calling dibs on some emotions, candidates also assigned emotions to each other. Brown tried spreading fear at many points in the debates, especially when talking about Conservative policies, even though Cameron and Clegg barely used fear but rather spoke in optimistic terms.

As well as boosting their popularity and manifestoes, candidates also used specific emotions in relation to specific topics. A close analysis of the debates shows that five emotions were dominant during the 2015 debates: empathy, anger, fear, hope and humour. This mix of emotions can be found in relation to the economy, education, health care, wars and conflicts and policing issues, all of which are major political topics. Whether emotions were used to soften political issues, help politicians pass on a message to voters or grab voters’ attention to discuss national and international issues are all possible explanations for this use.

But when candidates used all the allotted time to talk about how much they all love their kids rather than debating national and international issues, tensions started to appear among candidates. Clegg got angry at Cameron for not detailing his plan to save the NHS, Brown was at the margin of the emotional debate as he was not willing to divulge his best family memories, and Cameron kept juggling with emotions, personal stories and political arguments with ease.

Although candidates had a hard time finding their feet both politically (how much policy detail should they discuss?) and emotionally (what is the balance between too much and not enough emotions?), these debates allowed the public not only to learn about each party’s main ideas but also to gauge each candidate as a person. The first British live televised debates were emotional both in tone and content. So this is what we will miss if politicians and broadcasters cannot find common ground for 2015: more anecdotes about Cameron’s family and Clegg’s constituency, and a chance for Miliband to improve his personal likeability.

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