Typical, isn’t it? You wait 40 years for a debate on Britain’s membership of the EU, and then two come along at once. And now that the empty pizza boxes are in the bin, the popcorn kernals have been dusted from the sofa, and for certain members of the commentariat, the complementary wine hangovers are beginning to clear, what to make of Farage v Clegg Round One?
With wearying predictability, the media is already spinning the result as a Clegg win more furiously than my daughter’s hamster spins his incredibly noisy wheel. ‘Squeak, squeak, squeak’ went Tom Bradbury, Tim Stanley, Toby Young and others. My favourite was this this spectacularly egregious example from Labour man Dan Hodges (“In the next 24 hours there’s going to be a lot of spin, a lot of attempts at expectation management, a lot of attempts to get behind the headlines. But Nick Clegg beat Nigel Farage and beat him comfortably”).
But, much like the hamster, all their spinning is getting them precisely nowhere. Back in 1975, the newspaper columnists would have held sway over public opinion. Nowadays we make up our own minds, and let our opinions be known on social media.
And on social media, Farage edged Clegg out. Below is the ‘LBC Twitter Worm’ – a clever algorithm that figures out whether social media reaction to each point during the debate was positive or negative, and then plots it on a graph.
As you can see, the most substantive gaps between Farage and Clegg have Farage out ahead every time – in the opening remarks, then at around 17 minutes and again at about 40 minutes.
The 17 minute mark corresponds to Clegg talking about the benefit of mass migration from Eastern Europe and job losses. Clearly, the UKIP message on immigration has cut through here.
Farage also came across as more personable than Clegg – his highest peak was at 40 minutes, when he made a joke about Europe having improved British food.
The snap polling by YouGov was even more conclusive, putting Farage way out ahead on 57% considering him the winner, versus Clegg’s paltry 36%. Only 7% were undecided.
The learn’d establishment view no longer holds sway.
This disjoint between establishment and popular view doesn’t stop at the overall outcome of the debate. Some pundits are pointing to Farage’s comments on Ukraine as a mistake. James Forsythe at the Spectator’s Coffee House blog in particular picked up on this, saying
“I suspect that one of the stories that will run from tonight’s debate is Farage’s ill-coinsidered statement that the EU ‘has blood on its hands’ in the Ukraine crisis. Whatever the merits of his argument about the EU promising Ukraine more than it intended to deliver, it made him sound like someone who hates the European Union so much that he prefers Vladimir Putin to it.”
Forsythe has fallen into the trap of assuming that anyone who opposes the EU’s actions towards Ukraine must by default be in favour of Putin’s regime. But it is possible to think that both options are equally unpalatable.
Ukraine is in an unenviable position at the moment, caught between the rock of Russia, and the hard place of the EU. A terrible pity for a country that proudly declared its sovereignty in 1990, establishing the principles of self-determination of the Ukrainian nation, rule of the people, territorial supremacy, economic independence, cultural development, and external and internal security.
People who are in favour of leaving the EU will see this – and of course presenting both options as equally bad allows for easy comparisons between an anti-democratic Soviet State, and an anti-democratic European State.
Some may say that that line of thinking is too emotional. Indeed, the whole debate is already being framed as ‘the emotional rhetoric of Farage’ versus ‘the coolly rational Clegg’.
I find it particularly intriguing to see Conservative commentators berate Farage for his emotional appeal, considering that the party has been doing a lot of soul searching over how it can frame its arguments on a whole range of policy issues in a more emotional manner. On the other hand, considering they haven’t yet managed it, perhaps it’s not so surprising that their first instinct is to pooh-pooh the approach.
They are foolish to do so, for it works. Indeed, the Labour party, which has not had a single fact to back up its economic policies for decades, has honed this tactic to a fine art – and until the crash in 2008, it stood them in good stead. They still employ it on all sorts of social policy to equally good effect.
The ability to present dry facts and figures in an engaging, appealing manner is Farage’s key asset, and it’s what won him the debate. Not many publicly school educated city lads can come across as a man of the people.
But Farage shouldn’t rest on his laurels. Having won this debate, expectations will have been ramped up for next week’s sequel. He needs to top last night’s 57% polling if he wants further positive headlines; anything less will have this performance dismissed as a lucky turn, or he will be accused of having gone off the boil already.
The good news is, the facts are on Farage’s side. If he can master some more nitty gritty detail by next week, and can couple that to his witty banter, he will have a stellar combination. Yes, certain sections of UKIP will dismiss this as ‘playing politician’ – but Farage actually is a politician. It’s not UKIP voters he needs to persuade, but the rest of the voter body out there who will be looking at him and wondering whether UKIP might be a serious enough prospect to warrant taking a punt on after all.