TV leaders debate set to happen: if Sky keeps its nerve

I’ve always wondered why the media don’t call the bluff of party leaders when it comes to holding leaders debate at general election time.

Many in the media regularly and sincerely go on the record about believing such debates would be good for democracy, but in the past they’ve always held back from the idea that a debate could go ahead without all the relevant party leaders first agreeing.

That’s a view that has puzzled me because – particularly since the law was changed a few years ago – there are pretty strong legal grounds for being able to hold a debate, even if not everyone invited agrees to take part. Moreover, leaving aside the legal issues, any invited party that tries to take legal action to stop a debate would face a barrage of bad publicity. They would (judging by previous opinion polls) be on the wrong side of public opinion. They would also open their leader up to repeated questioning about why they don’t want to debate – which, even if answered well, puts them on the back foot. The media and bloggers would also have a whale of a time digging up previous quotes from prominent members of that party backing a debate (and such quotes exist for all the main parties).

So all that it needs for a leaders debate to happen is for a major media organisation to decide to make it happen – and then hold its nerve.

It looks like that logic is going to be put to the test because Sky has sent out the invitations, and already got a yes from David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Over to Gordon Brown – and if he drags his feet, will Sky flinch?

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29 Comments

  • dominic hannigan 2nd Sep '09 - 9:29am

    Good news! I can’t really see a way out for brown now as sky seem pretty determined . Time we put the pressure on for a chancellors|shadow chancellors debate as well.

  • I don’t think that Sky will flinch – it’s probably not in Murdoch’s interest to do so. What will be interesting to see is will the BBC & ITV then step in too? I suspect that, for as long as Brown stays out of the debate the BBC won’t, but if it’s clear there’s public demand for it they might.

  • Andrew Suffield 2nd Sep '09 - 10:14am

    Not sure what Brown does matters at this point – I don’t think anybody really believes he’s going to survive the next election now, and Labour isn’t going to be able to field a different candidate who could win it.

  • Test to see if allowed to post

  • James Robertson 2nd Sep '09 - 11:11am

    Interesting. I like the idea, although I’m a bit disappointed that Shy is the driving force behind it.

    Televised debates are long overdue in my view, and would allow for gearter discussion on policy – and might even go some way towards breaking down traditional patterns of voting behaviour.

    One question though – why have only Clegg, Brown and Cameron been invited? Why not the likes of Caroline Lucas or Nigel Farage? This is a great idea, so long as it doesn’t marginalise the so-called “small” parties.

  • James Robertson 2nd Sep '09 - 11:12am

    Sorry, of course I meant “I’m a bit disappointed that SKY is the driving force behind it.”

  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd Sep '09 - 12:09pm

    I am concerned that TV coverage of the general elections already places too much emphasis on the executive, giving the impression that a general election is just about the election of the Prime Minister, with Parliament serving only as some sort of electoral college. I would prefer a revision of the way general elections are covered which moves away from this idea rather than strengthens it. So for this reason I do NOT welcome a leaders debate.

  • LIke it or not (and there’s a lot in our party who don’t) leaders in parties have varying degrees of influence over policy. As a result, they form a necessary figurehead for questions on all topics, and a leaders debate is the best way to deal with this. James, Sky has indicated that they would find other ways to cover the smaller parties (i.e. additional debates for Scotland and Wales) which is mentioned in their blog but not in most stories reporting this.

    Dominic’s got a good point though – lets go for the chancellors’ debates too (didn’t this actually happen one year?)

  • Dominic Hannigan 2nd Sep '09 - 12:51pm

    “Why not the likes of Caroline Lucas or Nigel Farage?”

    The problem is where do you draw the line? There are literally hundreds of registered political parties in Britain, so if you go beyond the main parties then when do you stop? I know it probably seems unfair, but you have to draw a line somewhere.

    For example, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Respect currently have more parliamentary influence than either UKIP or the Greens so surely there is an argument that they have as much right to take part as Lucas or Farage. Equally, the BNP are almost as significant electorally as the Greens, so they would have to take part. And by this point it would be pretty hard to argue against a party like the English Democrats who are likely to stand hundreds of candidates, together with JURY Team, the Pirate Party and many others. Before you know it, you have a studio with thirty odd people in it and they each only get a minute to talk. Much more sensible to draw the line with the three main parties, probably not totally fair but it is likely to be the only way.

  • Mark, I thought I remembered something from around that time – I think you’re right, as I do remember Malcolm being in it.

    And with the leaders, we got close (but no cigar) last time with the “Question Time” special.

  • My prediction: the SNP (and/ or any of the other parties) will challenge the legality of such a debate in court and it’ll never happen.

  • James Robertson 2nd Sep '09 - 6:03pm

    Yes, I imagine you’re right Iain. And I wouldn’t blame the SNP – after all, if the Lib Dems were excluded I would expect our party to take similar action.

  • Salmond must be licking his lips. If he’s invited if gets a platform, and he’s not invited it’ll be seen in Scotland as supreme Westminster arrogance and give his mob a boost without him even having to take part. That’ll be a nice little bonus for the GE.

    Of course, that’s nothing compared to the boost they’re going to get after the GE when the tories get in at Westminster, but that’s an inevitability now whatever happens in the run up.

  • If there were 3 debates then there could be one debate could focus on issues affecting the whole of Britain and include Plaid and SNP, another would focus on england and wales and include Plaid and the finale debate would focus on england and just have Brown, Cameron and Clegg. BBC1 NI ought to brocast a seperate debate between the DUP, SDLP and UUP/UCUNF.

    I think the critirion for who should take part should be for a party to have a whip and or its leader in the commons. for NI this could be lowered to just having an MP who sits in the comons (Sinn Fein doesn’t take its seats so would be pointless to include in a debate).

  • michael w ryan 3rd Sep '09 - 9:05am

    Yes it would be good to get all major parties on TV ,not that i like eny of them ,they are all out for them selves . I want to here what each of them has to say before the general election . Keep up the good work SKY thanks . MIKE RYAN

  • I don’t think there’s any way that you could fairly split it up. For example, how are you going to ensure that the debate between Brown, Clegg and Cameron focuses only on English issues, i.e those that Westminster has devolved to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies, when those constitutional settlements are all different from each other? Should they stray onto reserved matters then they would be debating UK policy, not English policy, and the SNP et al would have grounds for objection. And can you really imagine a debate between Brown, Clegg and Cameron where defense, national security, foreign policy and monatary issues were off-limits? What would be the point?

  • Malcolm Todd 3rd Sep '09 - 10:20am

    I think DLG’s multi-debate idea is on the right lines, but a bit back-to-front: have an all-Scottish debate that includes the SNP and Scots leaders of the other 3 parties; an all-Welsh debate including Plaid; and a UK debate involving Brown, Cameron and Clegg. (Plus the NI debate, if there’s any appetitie for it.) All of them would have to be on UK issues, not just devolved matters, because it’s a UK election; but the format reflects the reality that there are significant differences in the political landscape and debate in the four parts of the UK.

  • I still don’t think that works. These are Westminster elections we’re talking about. The leaders of the Scottish Labour, Tory and Lib Dem parties only sit in the Scottish Parliament so they’re completely irrelevant here. What you’d end up with is a Scottish debate between Salmond, Broon, Clegg and Cameron and a UK one between the same minus Salmond, which would be arbitrary and absurd. And you’d get exactly the same issue in Wales.

  • Malcolm Todd 3rd Sep '09 - 2:22pm

    No, there would be no point in having BCC plus Salmond, BCC plus Jones, and just BCC. I don’t see a problem with having the Scottish leaders debating in Scotland, etc. I expect we’ll see them pretty actively involved in the GE campaign so why not? But I agree the important debate would be between the big three UK leaders, and I doubt it would be difficult to see off any challenge from parties that don’t want to be part of the UK government and don’t stand candidates in most of the UK.

  • I don’t see a problem with having the Scottish leaders debating in Scotland, etc.

    You don’t see any problem in having the Scottish version of the GE leaders’ debate held between people who aren’t actually the leaders of the parties that are standing in the general election?

    Odd, I can see several glaring problems with that without even really thinking about it.

    Forget it. There is no way a 3-way US-style debate is ever going to happen. Like it or not this format is just inherently unsuited to the current UK constitution. I suspect Clegg knows this and is banking on scoring some points when Broon refuses, which he will.

    It would be no less arbitrary to exclude Clegg and hold the debate between Brown and Cameron than it would be to exclude Salmond, but you can imagine the howls of protest on here if that were suggested.

  • Malcolm Todd 3rd Sep '09 - 3:47pm

    No, it would be far more arbitrary to exclude Clegg than to exclude Salmond: the SNP do not stand in 90% of seats in the UK; they have no interest in participating in the government of the UK; they have fewer than one-tenth as many seats as the LibDems. That’s a clear dividing line.

  • Malcom: I seriously doubt it would be seen that way in Scotland, and certainly not by the SNP. So either they would challenge it and win and prevent the debate from taking place, or they would challenge it and lose and be excluded. In either event they’d get a massive election boost in an election they look pretty likely to do exceptionally well in already. That’s a pretty dangerous price to pay for the sake of watching Brown squirm in a meaningless debate, entertaining as it may well be.

  • Malcolm Todd 3rd Sep '09 - 4:31pm

    Oh, I don’t know: watching Brown squirm may well be worth losing Scotland…

    Incidentally, has Salmond or his party actually made any comment on Sky’s proposal?

  • Yeah, they’ve demanded an invitation to take part.

  • John P Edwards 3rd Sep '09 - 8:48pm

    Where ever one goes in this world three items dominate. I came to this conclusion in1959 whilst on a WORLD CRUISE aboard H.M.S.Albion. 1 .SEX – 2. MONEY – 3. POWER. That was 50 years ago, so what has
    changed ? Absolutly nothing and never will. Democracy what is that ? When we get proportional reresentation !!! and the Politicians keep their noses out of the trough along with civil servants, I could name more but I’m sure you get the drift. Did you know that all CHIEF COSTABLES enjoy complete autonomy and that is a fact told to me when I secretly recorded a STAFF OFFICER to one of her Majesties INSPECTORS OF CONSTABULARY. Want to cure
    violence on the streets ? Whilst serving as a Boy Musician in Deal, I and another boy from Chester were called to the Guardroom to my amazement there was my childhood who lived just 6 doors from me. He was going to receive physical punishment for running away. We were then told we had escourt along with a Senior Marine to the place where the punishment would take place. Upon his release his first words to me were John never ever will I run away again,he then related the entire saga. He tansfered to the Royal Navy served 22 years mainly on submarines becoming a Fleet Chief Petty Officer. He also refused to take a commision as an Officer. So punishment does work and change the individual. Change the law and bring back the Birch, cat ,rod etc,etc.

  • Helen:
    In your election review for August you identify me as an official Liberal Democrat candidate for the Little Gaddesden Parish Council. This is incorrect. We run the PC’s in Dacorum on a non-political basis and I did not stand as a Lib Dem candidate.

    I would be obliged if you would not run the result of the election in that way again.

    Robert Irving

  • This debate will only be allowed to happen on condition it is not broadcast in Scotland. There is a sound basis for this view – remember when John Major wanted to have an interview with Panorama prior to Scottish council elections and the opposition parties in Scotland went to court over the matter? – the court ruled that Panorama could not be broadcast in Scotland, and even viewers in Newcastle were deprived of the programme to ensure that people in the south of Scotland could not pick up the signal!

    Considering the SNP is the governing party of Scotland, and has one the last two all Scotland elections (2007 and 2009) the SNP has a right to expect representation in any leaders; debate to be broadcast within Scotland.

One Trackback

  • By Nick says yes to Sky’s televised debate on Wed 2nd September 2009 at 11:42 pm.

    […] As LDV noted this morning Sky News has decided to lay down the gauntlet, and formally invite the major party leaders to particpate in a televised debate during the general election campaign. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has formally accepted his invitation, issuing the following statement on his website: Many thanks for your letter of yesterday. It is great to hear that Sky News are taking this important initiative and I would be delighted to accept your invitation. […]

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