Monday, 23 March 2015

Laugh about it, shout about it, when you've got to choose: who is going to win the candidates' debate?

So we are going to get some debates after all.  After what seems like endless faffing about, we are getting the following format:
  • 26 March: Live question and answer programme on Channel 4 and Sky News featuring David Cameron and Ed Miliband, presented by Jeremy Paxman and Kay Burley
  • 2 April: Debate with seven party leaders on ITV, moderated by Julie Etchingham
  • 16 April: Debate between five opposition party leaders on the BBC, moderated by David Dimbleby
  • 30 April: BBC Question Time programme with David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, presented by David Dimbleby
You don't have to be particularly keen-eyed to realise that there are in fact only two debates in this, and David Cameron features in only one, on 2 April.  I can think of better ways of spending the evening of Maundy Thursday than watching a debate (I'll be on a plane when it takes place, as it happens).  But that doesn't stop me considering the betting implications, and Ladbrokes do have a market on this:
So, who is going to win? 

Constraints of the system
In a seven-way debate, participants have a limited number of messages that they can major on, bearing in mind the time that they have available and the time that others will spend trying to counteract their messages.  So each leader will need to consider carefully what they are going to try to achieve in that limited time.  How are they going to decide what to say and do?  For this we need to get mathematical.
Game theory
Among Janos von Neumann's many achievements (including helping to inspire the film Dr Strangelove) was the foundation of game theory.  In that area of mathematics, we regularly encounter the truel - a three-way duel of the type seen in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly.  Apparently weaker gunslingers are disproportionately likely to win because the stronger gunslingers need to focus their fire on each other.
This time we have a seven-way duel (a heptuel?).  Perhaps disappointingly, they will all be standing physically at the end of the process and every participant will get multiple shots.  How is that going to pan out?  We need to consider in turn the strength of the various shootists and their objectives.  Because the party leaders aren't all aiming for the same thing and they have different starting positions.

As with the truel, this heptuel features gunslingers of differing strengths.  I see them falling into three categories: the main contenders (David Cameron and Ed Miliband); the outsiders (Nigel Farage, Leanne Wood, Natalie Bennett and Nicola Sturgeon); and Nick Clegg.  In many ways, Nick Clegg throws up by far the most interesting problems, as we shall see.

Better brains than me will be crunching the mathematics, but we can make do with a debased version.  As we shall see, this is a most peculiar heptuel.

The party leaders' aims and capabilities

First, let us consider what each party leader is going to aim for and how capable they are of achieving that aim.  The order will seem a little strange, and there is an element of iteration, but bear with me.

Ed Miliband

Ed Miliband needs the public to take a fresh look at him.  He is the single greatest impediment to his party's chances.  He therefore needs to come across as fluent and thoughtful, and to hold his own with David Cameron.

In the absence of intervening factors, I would expect him to have a very decent chance of achieving this.  He is intelligent and when not being tormented by the press reasonably likeable.  Set against that, he is undeniably nerdy and can get bogged down in detail.  He can also be slow to realise when he needs to change tack once things have turned in an unexpected direction.

As I shall explain below, however, he has a major problem in this format that hasn't been fully appreciated yet.

David Cameron

Conversely, David Cameron's chief opponent is Ed Miliband.  He needs to be seen to have decisively beaten him so that the public don't take a second look at him.  The Conservatives' one clear advantage over Labour is in their leaders, so they cannot afford to have that advantage eroded.

In the absence of intervening factors, this would be a fairly stiff challenge for David Cameron, given that Ed Miliband can be more capable and personable than the public appreciates.  That said, David Cameron looks and sounds the part of a leader, is an experienced debater and in a crowded field that is unlikely to be eroded unless he makes a serious blunder.

What David Cameron does not have time to do is challenge properly Nigel Farage's assertions about him.  Eagles don't have the time to strain at gnats.  This means that he is very vulnerable to an attack on the anti-immigrant flank.

Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage has a very simple task: to go after the votes of David Cameron's grumpy right wing.  He will do so by labelling all the other parties as the same and having no real answer to the problem of immigration.  He will be positioning himself as bluff and plain-speaking.

He has excellent chances in the absence of intervening factors of achieving this.  He was perceived to have done well in the debates with Nick Clegg before the Euro-elections and neither Ed Miliband nor David Cameron have the time to be attacking him with any great zeal. He may well have the coast clear to make his points (though perhaps not, as I shall explain below).

Natalie Bennett, Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon

Why have I grouped these three together?  Because they group themselves together:

Effectively they are respectively the English, Welsh and Scottish wings of anti-austerity parties (the Greens operate in all three countries but de facto are going to be competitive only in England).  They have at the debates the identical purpose of taking a big anti-austerity bite out of Ed Miliband's left flank.

And, critically, together they have three times as much firepower as everyone else in the debate.  Natalie Bennett has not exactly impressed as a political figure, but Nicola Sturgeon in particular is formidable.  Between the three of them, they are going to attract a lot of attention.  They will have the wind behind them from the start.

From Ed Miliband's viewpoint, this is a disaster.  Half of all the voices against him are going to be virulently anti-austerity.  Either he is going to have to spend some of his time rebutting them, time that he would otherwise be spending attacking David Cameron, or he is going to have to let this attack go unchallenged.  He's really going to struggle to avoid being spread way too thinly.

Labour might not have been able to avoid it, but this is a really poor format for them.
Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg is in a unique position.  His best source of votes is from those potentially opposed to the Conservatives.  So he will need to find ways to pile into David Cameron.
He is likely to be disregarded by almost everyone else because of his remarkable unpopularity - you don't kick a dead dog.  But he is the leader of a party of government.  He needs the public to take a second look at him - to that extent the format is really bad for him, because he risks getting lost in the mix.
That means that he needs to do something unexpected that will attract attention.  The Lib Dems have already shown that they appreciate the need for this with the much-derided Yellow Box stunt after the budget:

That didn't work, and the Lib Dems are going to need to do something more.  What could Nick Clegg do in the debates to attract (positive) attention?

The odds are stacked against Nick Clegg from the start, so he needs to find someone in the room to attack aggressively that people that he would hope might be "his" people would enjoy seeing attacked.  David Cameron registers for that purpose, but that is already priced in. 

Nick Clegg needs to shake things up more than that, to be a wildcard.  Otherwise, he is going down quietly to crushing defeat.  He may well be defeated anyway, but he should at least go down fighting.

He might think about really laying into Nigel Farage.  The advantage of doing so in this format is that Nigel Farage will really not want to waste much time on Nick Clegg (who is already roadkill) when he could be using his valuable time on David Cameron.  Progressives would love to see Nigel Farage on the back foot, and the warmth from that might help Nick Clegg.  He was judged by the public to have lost the debates against Nigel Farage last year, but that was one on one.  You don't have to be the biggest bruiser to get a vicious jab in when you're in a confused melée.

Or he might try something entirely different. 

I don't expect Nick Clegg to win the debate.  Too much water has flowed under the bridge since his debating triumph in 2010.  But he's an experienced debater and will make a dramatic contribution: he needs to.  I just don't know what that contribution will be.

Judging the heptuel

If the contest was to be judged by the commentariat, Nigel Farage wouldn't stand a chance.  But the contest will be judged by pollsters, and their respondents have a habit of seeing things quite differently.

It is human nature to regard the leader of your preferred party.  This gives David Cameron and Ed Miliband a headstart.  Equally, it is human nature to have one's expectations confirmed.  This gives David Cameron and Nigel Farage a headstart.

The fourth serious contender must be Nicola Sturgeon, as leader of the anti-austerity trio.  She is unlikely to come under sustained attack from anyone and in any case is a very capable and personable presenter of arguments.

In a seven-way contest, the winner doesn't need to get that high a share of the vote.  It's more likely than not that the winner will get no more than 30% of the vote and possibly less.

Given the strategic pressures that Ed Miliband will come under in the debate, I'm not expecting him to break through.  Battling both the anti-austerity trio and David Cameron from opposite positions is just too tough.  At 3/1 he looks way too short to me. 

Nicola Sturgeon is worth considering at 8/1 since she is a confident speaker who will not come under much fire, but I'm doubtful whether non-Scots will be receptive to the SNP badge.  8/1 is fair value but no more for me.

Nigel Farage has to stand an excellent chance.  He is hated by many but adored by many too.  There will be no tactical voting in this contest, so the Faragistas will ensure that he is in serious contention.  Only if he slips up seriously will he fall out of contention.  But at 2/1 he's just a bit too short to be fanciable for me.

The format, however, favours familiarity.  David Cameron is well-known and well-liked, and so long as he doesn't say anything absurd, offensive or patronising, his own loyal cadre of supporters will ensure that he is there or thereabouts.  4/1 looks like a very good price for the most familiar and experienced candidate.  I'm on.

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