Should there be UK Election TV debates?

Today is a big milestone in the UK political calendar. There are 100 days of campaigning left before the country goes to the polls on May 7th in what is looking like the most unpredictable UK election since 1974. There are many questions to be answered including Will there be leader’s debates on TV? And if so who’ll take part?
Unlike in the US, leaders debates did not occur in the UK until the last election in 2010 where there were three debates – on ITV, Sky News and the BBC – between then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg. The debates attracted TV audiences of 9.3 million (ITV), 4.1 million (Sky News) and 8.1 million (BBC) (Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley, the British General Election of 2010, page 266) and according to the same book (page 267) “The prevailing view among broadcasters and politicians…was that the debates had been a success and that they had come to stay”. So why with 100 days of the campaign left are the debates not a certainty to happen again? And would that be a good or a bad thing?
The event that has caused the problem has been the rise of a fourth party in UK politics, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Since 2013 there have been seven by-elections in Great Britain. UKIP has won two, come second by less then 5% in two, and second in the other three. They also won last years European Parliament elections in the UK. The broadcasters (the three that covered the 2010 debates plus Channel 4) responded to the rise of UKIP by proposing a “4-3-2” plan. One debate would have four participants – the 2010 trio plus UKIP leader Nigel Farage – one would have the same participants as 2010 and the third would be a US style two headed debate between Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband.
And then the problems started. The Green Party (who have one MP – who unlike UKIP’s two MPs* – won her seat at the 2010 Election as a Green) felt that if UKIP were in a debate, their leader Natalie Bennett should be too. And enter in a bizarre alliance, David Cameron, who said he would not take part in the debates unless the Greens were there. (I should explain that the reason we didn’t have debates in the UK pre 2010 is that the Prime Minister of the day always turned them down. We only got debates in 2010 because Gordon Brown was so far behind in the polls he felt he had nothing to lose.) So it looked like the debates were off.
So the broadcasters got their thinking caps on – and came up with a “7-7-2” plan. Two of the debates would include SEVEN parties – the four already in plus the Greens, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru – the latter two also wanting in despite the fact they are regional not national parties – while the third would be a Cameron v Miliband head to head. However, this plan is causing trouble too. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg wants to take part in all three debates and other parties want in – among them the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland. Mebyon Kernow (Sons of Cornwall) the Cornish Nationalists also want in – even though they only stand in six seats out of 650 – and even more ridiculously the Monster Raving Loony Party want to take part. The debates are disintegrating into a shambles. The broadcasters – showing breath taking arrogance – are bullying parties into taking part saying if any party does not turn up the debates will go ahead with the absentee party represented by an empty chair. But should the debates take place? In my opinion no.
First of all five parties might be too many. Seven would be. As the British General Election of 2010 (page 265) put it “The debate format had its limitations. Chiefly arising from tackling eight or more substantial topics in under 90 minutes”. And that was with three participants. Imagine the chaos with seven politicians trying to get a word in. Also a debate works best with just two participants – which is why they work in US Presidential elections and also where there is a “Yes or No” choice like last year’s Scottish independence referendum. They are not suitable for the multi party democracy the UK has been since at least 1974.
However my third reason is most important. I was never for the debates and the events of 2010 proved that. They had the effect of totally overshadowing the rest of the campaign. More seriously they turned politics into a game show – the equivalent of reality TV shows like the X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. But politics is too important for that. Being good on TV should not be the most important quality for a Prime Minister. And it isn’t. Being good on TV won’t help a Prime Minister when it comes to making the most important decision he/she has to make: Should I send my country’s troops into war? Two of the UK’s last three Prime Ministers -Tony Blair and Cameron – got this wrong, although in Cameron’s case he was rescued by Parliament refusing to back his plan to attack Syria.
The other point is that the UK does NOThave a Presidential system. On May 7th we are electing a Government for the next five years – not a Prime Minister. And the debates in 2010 had the effect of giving more publicity to party leaders who are over exposed anyway.
I hope the parties don’t succumb to the broadcasters’ bullying and the debates don’t happen. For those who use the US as an example, the first presidential debates in the US were between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960. They did not happen again until Ford debated Carter in 1976. There is no reason whatsoever why they have to become a regular event here. Remember the broadcasters only care about ratings. We have imported a lot of things from the US. But not everything that works in the US is suitable for the UK. TV debates are one of the things that aren’t.
*UKIP’s two MPs were elected in 2010 as Conservatives. Last year they defected to UKIP, resigning their seats to fight them under their new party’s colours. Both retained their seats.

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