Is there anything we can learn from the BBC’s election debate – other than what was actually said (and other than who did not take part)? Jack Bailey analyses the interruptions during the debate, and explains what they could mean for each party’s broader strategy.
Theresa May was notable in her absence at BBC’s election debate. Explaining why she would not take part, she said that “politicians squabbling among themselves” added nothing to the campaign. Whatever one thinks of the Prime Minister’s decision, her description of the debates’ dynamics seems fair. Debuting in 2010, they are now a staple of UK general elections. Yet, for better or worse, their format has shifted to accommodate smaller parties and cautious leaders. With intense competition for attention, this has left debates instead resembling shouting matches.
Even so, we are none-the-wiser on how these shouting matches play out. A sucker for punishment, I re-watched the debate and recorded each interruption. I then plotted this data as six networks, one for each topic.
In the plots above, nodes represent participants and arrows interruptions. I sized each participant’s node according to how often they were interrupted. Amber Rudd was interrupted most, 33 times. Given that she represented the governing party and was acting as a stand-in for Theresa May, this is hardly unexpected. But it does show how vulnerable a position the Prime Minister could have faced and perhaps vindicates her decision.
Interruptions also followed common perceptions of each party’s policy weaknesses. Amber Rudd, for example, was interrupted most on helping working people and paying for public services. This, of course, plays on the idea that Conservative policies benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn was interrupted most on immigration. This exposes a strategic vulnerability for Labour, who are attacked from the Right for not wanting to reduce immigration and from the Left for voting with the Conservatives on Brexit.
Most striking, however, is Tim Farron’s relative unimportance, being interrupted only 3 times in the entire debate. Perhaps the fact that the Liberal Democrats seem to be a credible threat in so few seats may have played a role. Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn did not interrupt him at all and Amber Rudd interrupted him only once.
Attempts to interrupt other participants tell a different story. As before, arrows represent interruptions. This time, however, I sized each participant’s node according to how often they interrupted others. Three patterns emerge. First, Tim Farron interrupted others much more than he was interrupted himself, and this held across a range of topics. For a small party, this is a sensible strategy. Prime-time debates are a rare opportunity to engage with a large audience and using interruptions to dominate the debate allows you to push more key messages than your opponents. Further, Tim Farron tended to interrupt Amber Rudd, his main electoral opponent, against whom he could best leverage his party’s pro-EU policies and who was focussed instead on Jeremy Corbyn.
Second, Amber Rudd’s experience was the opposite of Tim Farron’s: she was interrupted the most and interrupted others the least. For the same reason that it makes sense for small parties to flood the debate with interruptions, it makes sense for the governing party to avoid unwanted attention. This is particularly true given the context, with Rudd standing in for her party’s absent leader.
Third, there is some evidence of implicit cooperation between the nationalist parties (the SNP and Plaid Cymru). Leanne Wood and Angus Robertson did not interrupt each other at all during the debate. As sister parties with similar values and goals – independence – the two share policies that likely resonate with voters in both Scotland and Wales. In giving each other space, they increase the chance that their messages cut through.
Tim Farron (Liberal Democrats): Interrupt often to maximise attention. Focus on electoral opponents (Conservatives).
Jeremy Corbyn (Labour): Focus on the Conservatives. Interrupt to emphasise Conservative policy vulnerabilities (working people, public services).
Caroline Lucas (Green): Focus on ideological opponents (Conservatives, UKIP).
Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru): Avoid interrupting the SNP. Target electoral opponents (Labour) and ideological opponents in equal measure (Conservatives, UKIP).
Amber Rudd (Conservative): Stay quiet to minimise attention. Focus on Labour. Interrupt to emphasise Labour policy vulnerabilities (security, immigration, paying for public services).
Paul Nuttall (UKIP): Focus on opponent for working class support (Labour). Interrupt to maximise Labour policy vulnerabilities (security).
Angus Robertson (SNP): Avoid interrupting Plaid Cymru. Target electoral opponents (Conservatives) followed by ideological opponents (UKIP).
While I hope that this article has been an interesting companion to last week’s debate, there is one important caveat: there have been so few debates that we can’t be certain that these patterns are persistent. To that end, long may the shouting matches continue!
Jack Bailey is an MSc student in Social Statistics at the University of Manchester and from September 2017 a PhD candidate in conjunction with the British Election Study and YouGov. He also holds an MA in Politics from the University of Sheffield. He can be found on Twitter @SocSciStatsGuy.