6 things I thought watching “The Battle For Number 10”

I’ve been watching Sky’s coverage of Jeremy Paxman vs Theresa May vs Jeremy Corbyn. It’s been interesting watching it while also being logged into twitter and facebook – seeing both sides claim victory and the opposition’s calamitous performance – I would like to bet that in every comedy club in the UK this week we have a string of jokes all about it, most probably venomously anti-Tory and most probably pro-Corbyn.

Now before I go any further I will say that I am a progressive liberal, my opinions fall, in general, on Liberal, Labour and Green policies, so I am bias (please don’t comment to inform me of the fact, I’m well aware). I should also mention that I once did a quiz where it turned out I was 10% UKIP – I’m not sure which bit, but as a friend at the time pointed out, deep inside every well rounded liberal is a twat waiting to get out. I can only assume that my UKIPpiness has been muted by smashed avocado, sourdough and hand-churned butter from Waitrose.

Initially I thought I’d write about how each candidate answered the individual questions, after all, policy is what this should be all about, but The Guardian seemed to have that covered so maybe not worth my time. Then I wondered about writing something about Jeremy Paxman coming out of retirement but managed to do that on twitter..

So where did that leave me? I think with simple observations on what I saw and how I felt. So here are six things I thought while watching the show. Please comment if you’d like (I won’t reply) or retweet or share if that’s your thing.

  1. Corbyn came across as calm but missed moments
    Corbyn at points had a zen-like calm to his responses, batting away Paxman (JP) with ease at points. He seemed to make a smart decision by closing down questions he didn’t want to answer by staying calm, being concise and trying to make JP look aggressive and unreasonable. There was a point where I thought he had JP on the ropes and it felt like he missed an opportunity, I wanted him to send a few punches back and show a bit more steel, however that isn’t particularly his style and would have been off-principle. It was interesting how he seemed to speak a bit slower and quieter towards the end which made it tricker for JP to  interrupt him.
  2. May as defensive and a little fraught
    May came across as defensive and dealt with Paxman less easily – she fumbled a few replies and generally didn’t get JP on the ropes. She was, I think, given a harder time than the Labour leader, not in regards to the content (although curiously less references to things she’d done in the 80s, 90s & 00s), but in how aggressively Paxman pursued her and refused anything other than a soundbite answer (we’ll come back to this).  She was, I think, right not to put a figure on the cost of leaving the European Union but often failed to get her message across clearly, she needed to be concise, clear and structurally simple and also find nuance to her delivery to talk through Paxman (something Corbyn did more).
  3. Getting dressed right makes a difference.
    This is really shallow but I found it striking the change in Corbyn since he became Labour leader. As a society we are terrible for judging style over substance, but the reality is that we do. He looked sharper in a good suit – professional, responsible and more groomed. It’s little things like this that influence people – he has won the hearts and minds of those who know that’s not important – but for those he hasn’t he looked like he could lead a nation and not just a Geography expedition.
  4. It was all about the soundbite
    “Just let them speak” – The number of interruptions that both candidates had to endure was silly. I know Paxman is there to keep them in check and get the answers, but he was often pulling focus before anything had really been said. I found it interesting that when either one answered straight it killed the flow a bit. References to the IRA, Falklands and Monarchy felt dated and while have some relevance into the character of Corbyn they also made it about personality and not policy which felt like a waste. Paxman’s technique looked a little dated and a bit sensationalist (almost a parody of “Paxman”) – he didn’t so much set traps and wait for them to stumble into them than barge in with a baseball bat swinging wildly.  I wondered if Krishnan Guru-Murthy might have been a better choice to host?
  5. It’s a battle
    It occurred to me that tactically it’s a fine balance to succeed at a political interview, particularly with Paxman. If you go too defensive then you fail to get your point across, not defensive enough then the next interruption hits you with two or three examples of how you’ve failed. If you attack then you come across as a bully and aggressive. Try to hide something by talking around an issue and not answering the question leads to the pointed repetitions of the question. Big philosophical statements that change the entire narrative completely away from the question however do work. Corbyn talking about Social Injustice instead of the monarchy was a good example. Essentially fighting fire with fire (in terms of interviewee style) makes it all hotter. Trying to take away the heat is more effective.
  6. It was all too short and needed the candidates to face off.
    It all felt a bit rushed. There were clear points when Paxman looked like he’d been told to move on, the follow up question lacked bite (or just covered the same ground) and it felt like we covered not very much in a short amount of time and learnt very little. Multiple candidate debates featuring the top 6 candidates with each dedicated to a specific issue (defence, social care… etc..) would be much more informative. This wasn’t constructive debate or May v Corbyn. It was the candidates battling an interviewer who wanted to be impressive.

Right, that’s it. My thoughts, please disagree heartily (that’s okay), or agree (also okay).

Oh and this is my favourite tweet of the evening…

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