‘You guys always love the zero sum game, you know, politics as Premier League football,’ Paddy Ashdown said this morning when asked whether he accepted whether his leader had lost last night’s LBC debate on Europe. This sounded ridiculous initially: of course politics is like Premier League football. The party that comes second in a general election doesn’t skip away arguing that it was the taking part that counts, it retreats to lick its wounds.
But that assumes that for the Lib Dems and Ukip there was one specific group of voters who they were trying to persuade last night. Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage may have looks straight into the same camera and appeared to be addressing the same audience, but they were aiming for different listeners. That’s why the Lib Dems were happy with the 36 per cent that they polled last night. It demonstrates to them that there is some kind of constituency that likes to hear a politician being honest that he likes Europe and that he is pessimistic about Britain’s chances outside the EU.
Last night’s result also demonstrates that even if you appear a bit ratty and sweaty at times, as Nigel Farage did to those who are not instinctively his supporters, you can still win the debate, because there is a bigger constituency of voters who do agree with what you are saying, even if you’re not as polished as Nick Clegg. Thus the first of the two debates went very well for both parties: both were shoring up their own bases and motivating them to vote in elections with typically very low turnout. The real mission for these party leaders is to get their voters to go to the polling booths, not bother about people who haven’t made up their minds.