Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Good Start, But Could Do Better

OK, so we've had the Chancellors' debate. It was interesting, but not a revelation. We discovered that Vince Cable is very good at being Vince Cable, that Alistair Darling is, as well as being a safe pair of hands, not without a sense of humour, and that George Osborne isn't quite up to the mark. No nasty surprises, then. No sudden dawning of the light.

In other words, we got what we expected, and, from the look of the papers this morning and Twitter last night, most people saw what they wanted to see. (Apart from some of the Tories, that is, who seem to think it wasn't fair that Osborne was 'ganged up on', but in their case the words 'heat' and 'kitchen' spring rather predictably to mind.)

But this comforting dullness masks a real milestone in British politics. Despite comments elsewhere about Osborne's rather odd make-up, Cable's avuncular style and Darling's eyebrows, the entire programme was about policy. For a whole hour, three politicians gave their opinions about a variety of subjects without resorting to personal attacks or name-calling. People asked questions - albeit carefully controlled - and the politicians gave answers. And there were no breaks for adverts.

There were other plus points, too. Krishnan Guru-Murthy was an unobtrusive presenter, and seemed not to feel a Dimblebyesque need to impose himself and his importance on the proceedings. Where Dimbleby considers himself part of the show, Guru-Murthy seemed to see his role as that of a moderator or facilitator. As a result, there was an air of cool sanity to the debate which the coming prime ministerial events - 'chaired' as they will be by much bigger egos - may lack.

And what all the debates will lack is women. Not women in the audience, that is, or women asking questions, or women behind the scenes in all kinds of roles, but women as protagonists, women as debaters, or women as presenters. The most public, anticipated and discussed events of the election will be all-male affairs. Neither the parties nor the broadcasters seem to feel that this is unacceptable - indeed, the possibility that it might actually be a problem doesn't seem to have entered their heads.

This election will see more women candidates for all the parties than ever before. This is despite the fact that women as a whole are more disillusioned with politics than men, more likely to disengage, and less likely to join or support political parties. Young women, in particular, are likely to look at the parade of middle-aged men in these set pieces and turn straight off.

It's too late to do anything about this this time around, but next time, when we've all got over the excitement of having debates at all, something must be done. Politics in the UK is not the preserve of less than half the population, and we need to make sure that the many brilliant Labour women we have in parliament are visible on television as well as in their constituencies. And other parties would do well to take a similar view. Otherwise, the picture of politics we present to the world will continue to be oddly lop-sided and increasingly out of date.

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