Why I fear for the future of party leaders TV debates in UK elections.

“We won’t be doing television debates”. Theresa May adopted the royal ‘we’ to confirm that she wouldn’t be taking part in any 2017 General Election leaders debates. Strictly accurately by saying ‘we’ she wasn’t correct, plenty of Conservatives will take part in debates with counterparts from other parties on national,regional and local television and radio over the coming two months.

But what we won’t get this time is what we had for the first time in 2010, the leaders of the three largest political parties in the UK parliament facing each other and debating together. We didn’t really have it in 2015 where David Cameron’s tactics meant that there was a variety of formats, none of them the three leaders head to head without any other party leaders. In one ‘debate’ David Cameron and Ed Miliband appeared in the same Sky News-Channel Four programme but were interviewed separately.

The best indication of the mood of resignation amongst broadcasters was summed up by the BBC’s Media Editor Amol Rajan who posted on Facebook today ‘TV Debates during elections can be good for democracy. But I totally get why for Theresa May, it makes no sense whatsoever to agree to them’. Saying it makes ‘ no sense’ for a politician to agree to debate their policies before voters on national television seems a bit far for the BBC’s own media man to go but he is free to depart from the corporate line (once there is one).

However it suggests there won’t be much appetite inside the BBC for so-called ’empty-chairing’, inviting all three party leaders  into the studio and going ahead with whoever turns up even if it is only Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron.  There was a moment in 2015 when this was an option discussed by broadcasters as a tactic to deal with an evasive David Cameron but in a process never fully reported or revealed the BBC did a deal with the Conservative Party which avoided an empty chair but gave us a range of formats, few of them worthy of remembering.

Other broadcasters could still have gone ahead with their own empty chairing but none did. This time, according to Media Guardian, ‘The BBC and ITV are pushing ahead with plans for leaders’ debates in the run-up to the general election’ ..News executives at the BBC and ITV confirmed they were “working hard” on plans to televise the debates between leaders because of the “overwhelming” public interest in doing so. ITV has even announced that “ITV will hold a leaders’ debate as we did in 2010 and 2015. We will announce more details in due course.”  But when I read in Media Guardian that neither BBC or ITV ‘ want to antagonise the prime minister or any other leader and have made it clear that they are willing to work on reaching an agreement for all’ this suggests a re-definition of what is a ‘leader’ and no empty chairing.

I wouldn’t rule out one broadcaster,possibly Sky News, coming up with some original idea/stunt  but there’s little sign this particular lady is for turning on this particular core point. In the current climate where election fatigue seems to have exhausted voters before the campaign even begins ,what is the pressure that would make her change her mind?

And that is the number one reason why I think it may be a long time before we see again what we saw in 2010.  In the euphoria then at how the debates had brought politics alive for a young generation we feared would never be interested I cautioned that we should never assume it would be the same in every future election. I cited the 16 year gap after the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate before the Republican and Democrat presidential candidates debated again.

I take little joy in saying my fears have been realised. The reasons:

1.It just needs one Prime Minister to say ‘I’m not going to do them at all’ rather than ‘There are too many of them’ or ‘They are too near voting day’ or  conversely ‘There aren’t enough leaders in the debate’ (yes,David Cameron did say that) and it emboldens future PMs to just say no. Theresa May has done that. On twitter today I asked ‘It was 16 years after Kennedy-Nixon debates before next Dem-Rep one in US,how long till another Con-Lab-LD leaders election debate in UK? Among the replies:‘Until the incumbent PM feels they could gain rather than lose votes by taking part?Sadly cynical..’   @helen_purvis (parental pride allowed).

2. Even if a future Prime Minister agrees, there is no agreed way of defining who should and shouldn’t take part in such debates. In 2010 the broadcasters chose Labour,Tory and the Liberal Democrats claiming they were the three parties whose leaders had a chance of becoming Prime Minister. Trouble is it wasn’t true. Thanks to the first-past-the-post electoral system the Liberal Democrats had no realistic chance of winning and even with the ‘I agree with Nick’ momentum from the debates were still miles away from  being the largest party. They did of course became part of a coalition government but other parties with seats in the Commons might have been involved in coalitions under different hypothetical electoral arithmetic and that didn’t give them a place in the 2010 debates. The American way is for a Commission to set a criteria for taking part which is normally done by specifying  a minimum ranking in the opinion polls. There has been no appetite in the UK for a Commission or such a criteria which would  logically  lead to what broadcasters would privately prefer ,a head to head between the leaders of the two largest parties.

3.Things have got even more complicated when  it comes to comparing ‘third’ parties. UKIP has often overtaken the Liberal Democrats in the polls, arguably making them the most popular third party across the UK although they no longer have a parliamentary seat. The Greens still have a seat but a lower ranking in the polls. The SNP are by far the largest third party measured by seats in the UK Parliament but inevitably no ranking in a UK  wide poll. And all this at a time when the issue of broadcasting to the nations and regions of the UK is more politically sensitive than it has ever been.

 

 

 

 

One thought on “Why I fear for the future of party leaders TV debates in UK elections.

  1. Dear Prof,
    Like it or not, all PMs are free to decide whether or not to participate in debates. This will largely be decided by whether they are ahead in the polls or behind. Gordon Brown agreed in 2010 because he was trying to catch up. Empty chair threats are hollow, unless every single TV broadcaster stands firm behind them (deeply unlikely) – you don’t want to end up like the BBC in 1966 watching Harold Wilson giving an exclusive to ITV. And Theresa May could sweetly suggest that any such offender could carry on interviewing the empty chair for five years, whilst she only did exclusives for its rivals. As Lord Grade said last time, it’s not going to happen.

    David Elstein

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