Election debates can sometimes feel uneventful and a little lacklustre but they can also provide a significant boost to a candidate’s momentum (this was true of Clegg’s debate performance in 2010, Trudeau’s in 2015 and more recently for Kamala Harris).
Jeremy Corbyn needs to change the dynamics of general election 2019 rather quickly. With the right gameplan, Corbyn can narrow the gap substantially and present some serious problems for Boris Johnson. To win, Corbyn will need to do a couple of things.
First, he must open by clearing the air, reflecting on how his party has handled complaints of anti-Semitism poorly. This must be genuine, direct and unequivocal. The anger aimed at the party leadership runs deep (exemplified by Jewish Chronicle’s front page) and there are no quick fixes. However, the Labour leader can strengthen his licence to be heard throughout the rest of the debate by initiating a healing process with those who fear an administration led by him.
Opening with a reflective and honest approach also puts direct pressure on his rival, who has been accused of anti-black and anti-muslim racism. I’ve studied several of Johnson’s public performances over the years. He is uncomfortable addressing questions about the core of his character. He obfuscates, his pivots are too obvious, his eyes wander restlessly. The net effect of all of this – he comes across as shifty and untrustworthy. A significant and meaningful mea culpa from Corbyn applies immense pressure on Johnson, especially if the Labour leader invites the prime minister to be equally reflective. My view is that Johnson would be unable to do it authentically.
Second, Corbyn must control the narrative throughout the debate. Johnson, schooled in the Crosby school of political communication will continue to drive home his “get Brexit done so we can focus on other stuff” message. To win, Corbyn must successfully argue that this election is a referendum on a decade of Tory decisions on health, the environment, education, mental health services and crime. He has to continue to ask of Johnson: “So, what have you been doing for the past decade?”. Corbyn must explicitly call Johnson whenever he tries to pivot back to Brexit. He must be prepared to cut Johnson off mid-sentence (in moderation). He must be prepared to ask precise questions of Johnson and ask those questions again if he gets a disingenuous answer. The more debate is fought on social and environmental grounds, the more likely it is that Corbyn will come off as a winner.
Finally, Corbyn must keep calm throughout the debate. I predict that Johnson will be loud and brash (driven by his need to animate Leavers). In light of the criticism levelled at the decision to exclude Jo Swinson from the debate, the optics of two men shouting back and forth would be unbearable for many. Instead, Corbyn must have moments of indignation but his baseline speaking style must be calm and methodical, especially when Johnson inevitably tries to rattle him.
I’ve spent over 13 years developing strategies to help individuals win debates in front of audiences. A strong debate performance can be a gamechanger if the right plan is in place.
Lewis Iwu is the author of Words that Win and is a former World Debating Champion. He has advised senior leaders and politicians on how to win debates.