You could be forgiven for thinking that it was a bit early in the year – and, for that matter, a little early in the day – but the first leaders’ debate of the 2016 National Assembly election took place this morning. As a special edition of the Radio Wales show, the Sunday Supplement, we had a 45-minute debate, chaired by the show’s usual host, Vaughan Roderick.
Five parties were represented in the debate – unlike in last year’s general election debates, the Greens were not included. The party representatives were:
- Carwyn Jones, the First Minister, represented Welsh Labour
- Andrew RT Davies, Leader of the Opposition, represented the Welsh Conservatives
- Plaid Cymru were represented by their leader, Leanne Wood
- Kirsty Williams, leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, represented them
- And Nathan Gill, UKIP’s Welsh leader, spoke for them.
You can hear the entire debate here. A few general reflections from me:
First, clear winner of the debate, I thought, was Vaughan Roderick. These multi-party debates can get messy, and I think even more so on radio where there are no pictures (obviously!) and so people may have little to explain what is going on when they hear a cacophony of voices. Vaughan kept things – mostly – under control, which is not easy to do with five highly opinionated politicians all wanting to have their say. Da iawn, Vaughan.
Second, another reason why I say that Vaughan was the winner was that I thought that none of the leaders exactly sparkled. To borrow some terminology from my favourite sport, they pretty much all seemed short of a gallop. Perhaps it was the early time of the morning; perhaps it was also that some of them don’t want to make too much use yet of their key phrases and slogans for the campaign period. Whatever, while none of them disgraced themselves at all, I didn’t think we heard any of them really at their best either. Still, to continue the horse-racing analogy, I expect that they will all come on for the run.
Carwyn Jones started fluently, and perhaps was the leader to sound the most consistently well-informed. But then when you’ve been First Minister for more than six years, you ought to. At the same time, he was quite often forced into defending his government’s record – indeed, at various points in the debate having to defend it from all the other participants. It was also notable that – unlike in the 2011 campaign – he did not attempt to draw in the wider picture of UK politics. And for the second time in a week I heard him talking about the miners’ strike – something which concluded more than 30 years ago: I guess this is an attempt to help Labour re-connect with its traditional support, but it hardly seems particularly forward-looking. His closing statement was also not the strongest element of his performance, I thought – he appeared uncharacteristically hesitant a couple of times.
Andrew RT Davies performed quite well – he has notably improved as a speaker, in this sort of format at least, over the last few years. He sought to take the fight to Labour over subjects like health and education, and mostly avoided even discussing the other parties. At several points he and the First Minister traded blows directly; this would seem fine in terms of a general message that the Tories would likely want to develop, of the election being a choice between them and Labour. But over-done in future debates such tussles could get distinctly tiresome. His closing statement emphasised strong Tory themes of security, stability and opportunity well – though is there perhaps something of a contradiction in messaging between the emphasis on stability and calls for change in the government of Wales?
Leanne Wood also performed well, but not spectacularly. She also gave an outing to some of the themes that Plaid are likely to foreground in their campaign this year, at the same time as discussing some of Plaid’s specific policies. if I would have a criticism of her performance it would be that while she spoke quite well at times about specifics, and her closing statement did quite a good job on Plaid’s general messages, the link between the general messages and the specific policies was not made particularly clearly. An effective campaign wants to have a strong central narrative that is exemplified and reinforced by specific policies; Plaid may be able to develop that, but I didn’t think that quite came over this morning.
Kirsty Williams once again showed that, whatever other problems her party may have, it is lucky in its Welsh leader. As in previous debates, she sounded perhaps at her best when discussing health, a subject about which she has considerable knowledge. In general, though, this was probably not quite Kirsty at her best – she tended to speak just a little too quickly for radio, I thought, which made her sound a bit hurried. This was not quite the icy-cool Kirsty Williams that we have come to know from First Minister’s Questions.
Nathan Gill would have been the least experienced of the performers this morning, but in general that did not stand out. What did strike me, as it had in last year’s general election debates, was the contrast between his style and approach and that of his UK party leader. Nigel Farage tends to a highly combative approach in debates, whereas Nathan Gill is quite softly-spoken and conveys a much less abrasive style. This may be less effective at firing up UKIP’s core support, but potentially might it also play better with non-committed voters?
Anyway, that’s just what I thought – and as I have said previously on this blog, who cares what I think? Today felt rather like a warm-up for bigger confrontations to come. And we won’t have too long to wait for those.