Prime Minister Gordon Brown sought to woo Liberal Democrat voters after three instant polls showed their leader, Nick Clegg, won Britain’s first televised campaign debate.
Brown said he agreed with Clegg on the Liberal Democrats’ signature issue of electoral reform, saying that Conservative leader David Cameron wouldn’t deliver the overhaul sought by the Liberal Democrats after the May 6 vote.
“On the issue of constitutional reform, the Conservatives are the party of no change,” Brown told reporters on the train to a campaign visit in coastal Brighton. “We and the Liberals are the parties of change.”
Clegg benefited from greater exposure than a third-party leader normally enjoys as he shared equal time last night in the 90-minute event in Manchester, northwest England. A ComRes Ltd. poll suggested support for the Liberal Democrats rose 3 percentage points after the debate to 24 percent.
Analysts who watched said none of the three made any major errors and Cameron did nothing to extend the Conservative poll lead to the point where he can be sure of avoiding a hung Parliament.
‘Win on Points’
The “debate was a clear win on points for Nick Clegg,” said Andrew Hawkins of ComRes, whose poll showed 43 percent saying the Liberal Democrat won to 26 percent picking Cameron and 20 percent Brown. “None of the leaders fared particularly badly or made huge mistakes, but it highlighted the challenge Gordon Brown faces in connecting with voters.”
ComRes’s poll, the first to reflect the debate, showed Conservative support unchanged at 35 percent and Labour down 1 point at 28 percent.
To come to that result, ComRes interviewed 4,032 viewers by telephone after the program and then weighted the results to take into account previous voting intentions and the fact that the event was seen by only around a quarter of the electorate.
The debate attracted 9.4 million viewers, broadcaster ITV said. There were 44 million registered voters as of Dec. 1, according to the Office for National Statistics.
“Yesterday’s leaders’ debate was just the start,” Clegg told supporters in Warrington, near Manchester. “This general election campaign is about fairness, it’s about who you can trust.”
Clegg’s party wants a system in which seats in Parliament better reflect the popular vote. In 2005, the party gained 22 percent of the vote and won only 62 seats, or 9.6 percent of the 646-seat House of Commons.
Brown has backed a change requiring lawmakers to win at least 50 percent of the vote by taking into account voters’ second choice. The Liberal Democrats, who accuse Brown of a “deathbed conversion” to electoral reform, say that doesn’t go far enough. “If you look at the policies and programs of the two parties, Labour and Liberal Democrat, we are very close together, whereas there is a gulf between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives,” Labour’s transport spokesman, Andrew Adonis, told BBC Radio 4.
A YouGov daily poll published before the debate showed the Conservative lead narrowing to six points from nine, with Cameron’s party at 37 percent and Labour at 31 percent. The Liberal Democrats had 22 percent. Because of the way seats are currently allocated that lead would probably not give the Conservatives a governing majority.
The prospect of a hung parliament, with the government lacking the strength to attack a record budget deficit, pushed the pound down to as low as $1.5386 from $1.5496 yesterday.
Another instant poll by YouGov Plc of 1,091 viewers found 51 percent naming Clegg the winner, 29 percent Cameron and 19 percent Brown.
A Populus poll for the Times of London of more than 620 voters showed 61 percent thought Clegg won, compared with 22 percent for Cameron and 17 percent for Brown. Two-thirds of those questioned said the debate would make a difference to their views of the campaign. No margin of error was given in any of the polls.
The three leaders debated eight questions posed by audience members in a television studio. Two more debates will follow in the next two weeks.
“Clegg had nothing to lose and everything to gain and he took the opportunity,” said Stephen Driver, who teaches politics at the University of Roehampton in London. “He looked normal, calm and relaxed.”
Conservative officials said they will seek to use the next two debates to tell voters that only Cameron or Brown has a realistic chance of being prime minister. Clegg’s message was that he offered a change from the other two parties, which have held power between them for the past 90 years.
“The more they attack each other the more they sound exactly the same,” he told the audience at one point. “We can do something different this time.”
Brown focused his fire on Cameron, whose Conservatives have led polls for almost all of his 2 1/2 years as prime minister, emphasizing his own experience. “I say to the audience and to the nation, it’s important at this moment to take no risk with the recovery,” he said.
Cameron says his party would shrink the size of the state and would go further and faster than Labour in cutting the deficit. At almost 12 percent of economic output, the shortfall rivals that of Greece’s 13 percent deficit.
Post-debate polls, especially when conducted immediately afterward, can be highly unreliable because they are less likely to be truly random and therefore more prone to error, said John Russonello, a Washington-based public opinion expert.
Beyond the instant reactions, Russonello said, is “what the public thinks happened -- after they’ve thought about it for a while and seen all the news coverage,” he said.
He cited as an example the Al Gore-George W. Bush presidential debates in the U.S. in 2000, during which Gore’s exaggerated sighing came to be seen as emblematic of his haughtiness.
“That wasn’t necessarily picked up immediately in the polls,” Russonello said. “That took a while to sink in.”
“The questions now are who people think is the winner once it has been filtered through the media tomorrow, and more importantly, what impact that has on voting intentions,” Anthony Wells of YouGov wrote on his Web site. “Our first chance of getting a really good idea of that will probably be the polls on Saturday or Sunday.”
“The bottom line is that this is an election in which people can’t make up their mind,” said Driver. “It now may be even more unclear.”