On Thursday evening I attended what was billed as a "Fair, Impartial AV Referendum Debate" in Reading.
I had been anticipating a balanced debate where well informed and experienced campaigners from both sides locked horns and I hoped to hear some thought provoking arguments. Although I am already decided as a "Yes" I am still interested to hear principled arguments from both sides and to try myself to engage in this sort of thing.
However the event turned out to be anything but balanced. It seems that the debate was actually organised by the "No" side. I unfortunately arrived just as it was starting so didn't have time to speak to anyone beforehand but the "Yes" side had not sent anyone to the debate. I thought this was a bit odd at first but as I have subsequently discovered each time these "No" organised debates take place, an official invite is only sent to the "Yes" camp on the morning or afternoon of the debate itself (*see update below for the "No" camp's response to this). So given such short notice and the way they are organised it is not altogether surprising that they do not send people.
So the line up was:
For the "No" side:
Mark McDonald, a human rights lawyer.
Sam Gyimah, Conservative MP for East Surrey.
For the "Yes" side:
Charles Hindhaugh, a year 13 student from Reading school who was pulled in from the audience at the last minute.
I think you can see where this is going.
Both Mark and Sam are clearly very experienced debaters. They pitched their cases which to my mind contained the odd fair point but mainly lots of spurious and in some cases totally misleading information. But packaged very well and of course with all their experience they were able to use debating tactics to sidestep rebuttals and change tack deftly when necessary.
Charles on the other hand is an 18 year old schoolboy. He did his very best and frankly I was impressed with what he managed to do given his age and the fact he had had about 1 minute to prepare but inevitably some of the very reasonable points he tried to make got a bit lost and he did seem to lose his train of thought at times. Completely understandably mind. I very much doubt as an unprepared 18 year old schoolboy facing a Member of Parliament and a human rights lawyer I would have been able to do any better.
At first I thought that despite the clear imbalance on the panel, once the debate was opened up to the floor it would be possible for members of the audience to redress this. And those of us in the "Yes" camp in the audience did try. However the dynamics of the structure of the debate very strongly mitigated against us. Every time someone from the audience got a minute or two to make a point, the panel then got at least as much time to respond and because the panel, with the microphones and the advantage of the platform was biased in numbers and strength in favour of "No" the "Yes" argument struggled to get a fair hearing.
I was one of those who tried and I made a couple of points regarding the 50% threshold that Sam made great play about and also tried to skewer the cost argument. To be perfectly honest my contribution was not the best. Had I been on the platform I would have prepared and also brought a pen and pad with me to make notes. Instead I was trying to respond to points from memory from the audience. I do not think they responded to my 50% point and my cost argument was effectively ignored as Mark continued to claim it would cost over £200 million and also derided by point about Women's Suffrage (which I have made before here) which is easy to misrepresent and of course I had no real come-back once the microphone was taken from me. When I did try later to chip in and rebut his continuing misrepresentation of the facts he was able to then portray me as a heckler whose interventions were out of order in the format. He was also able to do this with others who tried similar interventions. In a way he was right of course. I was just an audience member. But the complete imbalance in the panel made a mockery of the usual rules of a fair debate.
I am sorry to say that after less than an hour I had had enough of this farce and I left.
I think what annoyed me most is that I have very little free time these days and this turned out to be a complete waste of it. I was interested in seeing an impartial and balanced debate and what we got was a travesty of this. I expect No2AV campaigners will claim that the "Yes" side should have sent people but from everything I can tell the late invitations and the whole structure of the way these events are set up are an attempt to maximise the chance that this will not happen.
To anyone else from either side or from a neutral perspective thinking of attending a local debate, I would strongly urge you not to attend any debates organised by the "No" camp. They are the ones listed on the http://avdebates.com website.
Unless of course you want what is effectively a rally for the "No" side. In which case fill your boots.
If you want to watch a video of the Reading "debate" from Thursday and judge for yourself, it is available here. I am the bloke on the front row who gets involved about half way through.
*UPDATE 14/03/2011: @LaraSmallman on Twitter has drawn my attention to the following claim by the "No" camp that they had actually invited the "Yes" camp to their debates back in January. I only reported what I had heard but in the interests of fairness here is a link to the "No" camp's post on this subject.
PS: Incidentally I didn't see this Liberal Conspiracy post until after I got back from the debate on Thursday evening and @JamesGraham on Twitter told me about it. Had I seen it and realised the nature of what I was walking into I almost certainly would not have bothered.
PPS: I have had my attention drawn to another review of the event by PoplarMark here. He thinks my intervention was a bit too aggressive. I had suspected it did not come across as I had intended!