Last Thursday Adam and I gathered together a small group of voters, of various political persuasions and generations, to watch the seven-way leaders’ debate in Stroud, a Labour-Conservative marginal in Gloucestershire.
The debate hardly changed anyone’s views radically, but people found the format engaging and it sparked broader discussions about politics, both before and after the official proceedings. Obviously holding the event in a pub, the generous Crown and Sceptre, always helps encourage debates.
One aspect of the debate that voters really enjoyed was the presence of three female leaders – in contrast to 2010’s entirely male TV contest. Said one Stroud constituent:
“It was won by the women. We need to vote more women in. I thought it would be fixed, but I think now, the women didn’t allow it to stay a fix.” tweet
We asked our group to write down their opinions of the seven party leaders before and after the event. Nicola Sturgeon received particularly high praise:
“Sturgeon came across very well as not simply being a nationalist party, but also a party that can have an impact in Westminster and be an ally to other anti-austerity across the UK. She was the best!” tweet
Ed Miliband’s performance was compared unfavourably with his appearance on the double Paxman interview show the week before:
“Compared to his 1-1 ‘debate’ with Paxman, Miliband came across worse this time, far more contrived and rehearsed. He is far better when he is on the defensive, not so competent attacking the Tories and UKIP.” tweet
The Stroud crowd did not seem to view Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood as particularly relevant. One voter, before the debate started, described her as “Unknown. More left wing than Labour.” Nobody volunteered any comments on her performance after the show.
On David Cameron’s performance, one voter offered a broader opinion on economics:
“To pay for all the promised spending only the wealth created by the private sector can do this — creating more tax receipt.” tweet
Another suggested that Ed Miliband had managed to focus the debate on topics that David Cameron might have preferred to have discussed less:
“Cameron did his utmost to appear calm and ministerial, but could not help but get dragged into arguments over austerity and the NHS by Miliband – which I’m sure was the Labour leader’s objective.” tweet
Natalie Bennett was described in generally positive terms, though her lack of experience was brought up: “The only one to stop privatisation of the NHS property & stop TTIP,” said one voter. “Human, principled, inexperienced,” said another. One focus group member said during the advert break,
“I thought the Greens were just about the environment. But I can see they speak on many other issues and are very caring.” tweet
However, for all the positive impact Bennett’s performance had, our Stroud’s constituent’s voting intentions were not altered.
The focus group was not particularly impressed with the message of the UKIP leader, but many agreed he has a strong gift for communication.
“Farage had little to say on any subject that he couldn’t turn around to blame on immigrants. He spoke well but to little effect.” tweet
With a month to go until the general election, there’s plenty of time for all these views to change. But with an engaging debate on screen that prompted further discussion in the pub, it turns out the Stroud crowd were wowed by the TV debates.