TV Debates Change Britain's Politicking

The third and final TV debate in the British general election took place Thursday night among the leaders of the three main parties. With less than a week to go before the election, it's clear the debates have had a big impact on Britain's political landscape.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And now let's go to another European country loaded with debt - Great Britain. Leaders of the three main parties there wrapped up their historic televised debates last night. With less than a week to go before a general election, it's clear the debates have had a major impact on Britain's political landscape. NPR's Rob Gifford reports from London.

ROB GIFFORD: It was supposed to be a debate focusing on the economy, but once again it was the subject of immigration and whether to place caps on it that dominated.

Mr. NICK CLEGG (Liberal Democrat): Is it, am I right or wrong that 80 percent of people who come here come from the European Union and your cap would make no difference to that whatsoever. Is that right, yes or no?

Mr. DAVID CAMERON (Conservative Party): We have said...

Mr. CLEGG: Yes or no?

Mr. CAMERON: ...new EU countries should have transitional controls. We all remember what happened when Poland joined the European Union.

Mr. CLEGG: Yes or no?

Mr. CAMERON: We were told 13,000 people would come. And, in fact, it was closer to a million.

GIFFORD: David Cameron of the Conservatives and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats were not criticizing each other. Both presented the case for change, while incumbent Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the Labour Party urged voters not to risk switching to untested government.

The analysts seemed to agree there was no clear winner last night. The revolution in that respect had already happened in the first two debates, with the emergence, as a voice for change, of Nick Clegg - the third party candidate. Roy Greenslade is professor of journalism at City University in London.

Professor ROY GREENSLADE (Journalism, City University): It's quite clear that the televised debates have changed the whole political agenda this time around. So it's now a three-horse race instead of a two-horse race, which changes the whole nature of the election and has been caused, totally, by these TV debates.

GIFFORD: For many ordinary people, the TV debates have also proved a breath of fresh air, enabling viewers to listen directly to the candidates for themselves. Clive Benden(ph) is sitting out reading a book in his lunch hour in West London.

Mr. CLIVE BENDEN: I think it's a very good idea, because what they do is, in the past, the debates have mainly been the realm of the newspapers, the press. And they usually are fairly partisan of one party or the other. And this time, the press is actually being overtaken, I think, by television.

GIFFORD: This has caused fury in many of the conservative-leaning newspapers who have responded to being bypassed by trying to dig up dirt on Nick Clegg.

Polly Toynbee of the left-leaning Guardian newspaper says the long-term legacy of the debates could well be political reform to a more proportional system.

Ms. POLLY TOYNBEE (Columnist, The Guardian): Until you had the equal chance for the third party in a television debate, we had a quite disproportionate result. Before, people didn't mind too much, because the unfairly treated party was a small party. But once you get maybe nearly a third of voters trying to elect the party that then gets a tiny number of seats, I think there will be a real sense of indignation, and people will understand exactly how distorting our electoral system is.

GIFFORD: Amazingly, the possibility of political reform may be the surest thing to have come out of the television debates. Because less than a week before polling day next Thursday, most money is still on the likelihood that no party will get a majority, and few are predicting with any confidence who will be Britain's prime minister this time next week.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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