The leaders’ debate – is it really now game on?

Fair play to Sky News. It’s a month since the broadcaster upped the ante on a leaders’ debate, with Adam Boulton launching a full-throated campaign – including writing for LDV – for Nick Clegg, Gordon Brown and David Cameron to debate each other in the lead-up to general election day.

The result? The AP tells us a deal has now been reached between the broadcasters:

Broadcasters have written to Britain’s main political parties proposing a series of televised debates before the general election. The BBC, Sky News television, and ITV have written to the leaders of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties with a joint proposal for three live televised debates before the election, which must be called by the middle of next year.

Sky News has been campaigning for U.S.-style debates between Prime Minister Gordon Brown and opposition challengers David Cameron and Nick Clegg. The idea has been endorsed by Cameron and Clegg but Brown has been slightly more circumspect. Brown’s Downing Street office did not immediately return a call Friday seeking comment on the proposal.

This is no mean feat. All previous attempts to initiate a leaders’ debate have foundered either because the politicians could not agree the rules, or because the broadcasters were squabbling among themselves. Or both – 1997 was a case in point. (You can read all about the farcical 1997 leaders’ TV debate negotiations in this article by Stephen Coleman).

Within days of Sky breaking cover to campaign for a televised debate, the BBC and ITV were rather defensively briefing against their rival. Thankfully, all three seem to have decided to keep their toys in their pram, and democracy is the winner.

At least, it will be so long as Gordon Brown doesn’t dither and duck. As @nick_clegg tweeted this afternoon: “Have just said yes to leadership debates – let’s see what Downing Street says…”

I notice, with some amusement, that ConservativeHome is now getting cold feet:

Debates are potentially a lifeline for Brown but an unlikely one. Debates could, however, be a godsend for Nick Clegg. He isn’t going to be Prime Minister so why would he be included in all debates? We should really have head-to-head debates between Brown and Cameron. That’s the real choice. Clegg probably should be in one of three debates, perhaps even two… but three?

This is a typically ConHome position, based I guess on their world-view that only the USA matters, and as leaders’ debates in America are presidential debates so must debates in the UK be Prime Ministerial. The thinking is deeply flawed. The purpose of a televised leaders’ debate is not to help the public choose a Prime Minister, as we operate a Parliamentary system of democracy – as they do in much of Europe, Canada and Australia, where televised leaders’ debates are well-established.

What the leaders’ debate is supposed to do is allow representatives of the three main parties to be able to make their case to the public. And as the Lib Dems gained the votes of almost six million voters at the last general election – almost one-quarter of the voting public – it is of course right that the party is fully represented, just as the non-partisan Hansard Society (Vice-President: David Cameron) has stipulated should happen.

Of course it is possible ConHome’s nerves are based on what happened in the US the last time a third party candidate was allowed to debate alongside the established Republican and Democrat candidates – Ross Perot doubled his support in the polls in 1992, largely as a result of his creditable performances in the televised debates.

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  • I’d like to see these debates moved away from personality and character assassination and onto what will probably be the main issue at the election – The economy.

    Instead of the three leaders, expand the format to have Brown & Darling debate Cameron & Osbourne and Clegg & Vince. Only by hearing these three teams on the spot can we get an idea of who’s best to control the nation’s purse. Brown v Cameron v Clegg would just be an hour of posturing, soundbites and promises.

  • Stanley Theed 2nd Oct '09 - 7:48pm

    I like your suggestion but suggest that Labour and the Tories would not be very enthusiastic.

  • In reply to Stanley:

    I actually think Labour would go for it – Osbourne brings the Cameron brand crashing down. You can’t look progressive stood next to him in a live debate!

  • The whole idea is dangerous. It presents the election in terms of a choice exclusively between those taking part, but the reality is that we’re living at a time when national support for minor parties has never been higher, and in many parts of the country those minor parties are actually the dominant force. It is grossly unfair to those who are excluded, and it will be resented by many people in those areas on principle, not just by supporters of the exclude parties.

    As a not-particularly-nationalistic Scot I find the whole idea viscerally offensive and indicative of Westminster arrogance. Those are dangerous emotions to be stoking at a time when the SNP are already in the ascendancy and looking forward to an even bigger boost once they have a Tory government in Westminster to rail against. And I could imagine anyone considering a vote for the Greens, or UKIP, or PC or any of the other smaller or nationalist parties could feel similarly slighted and choose to take it out on the establishment who closed shop and excluded them.

    And for what gain, really? A bit of entertainment? It’s madness.

  • @philip

    It’s a General Election, treacle, and will be fought on all the issues that general elections are always fought on. We don’t vote for ‘who is running the economy’ directly in the UK, we vote for MPs who stand on a whole range of issues, but even if we stuck to your arbitrarily chosen topics you still can’t argue that no other party has a valid position on them. In Scotland a debate on the economy is meaningless without the participation of the SNP because the whole economic debate up there concerns the pros and cons of fiscal autonomy.

    I never mentioned the Scottish Parliament, but it’s telling that you did. Surely you are aware that the SNP also stand in Westminster elections? The choice facing most Scottish voters therefore isn’t between Labour, Tory and Lib Dems but between the SNP and Labour, just as in Wales the election will mainly be fought between Labour, Plaid, and the Tories, and in parts of the South East it could well be a Lib Dem/ Tory/ UKIP battle, and so on around the country. A debate between just Brown and Cameron or one between Brown, Cameron and Clegg completely ignores this reality in the most arrogant and myopic way imaginable. It presents an entirely false dichotomy (or trichotomy, depending).

    I’m not suggesting that the leaders of the small parties should all be invited – as you say that would be unworkable – I’m suggesting that like it or not the presidential debate format is signally unsuited to our political system and that there could easily be unwanted or unforeseen consequences to such a debate taking place at all. It’s just a really bad idea, whatever the specifics.

    If you’re labouring under the misapprehension that I’m an SNP supporter then think on. I’ve never voted SNP in my life and couldn’t now even if I felt so inclined because I don’t live in Scotland. It’s the principle that offends me here – the political myopia. It concerns me that if Clegg’s participation makes me less likely to vote Lib Dem, and it quite certainly does (though admittedly it’s only the last straw in that regard), then it’s going to be an absolute gift for the nats up in Scotland, and to a lesser extent in Wales or even England in the guise of UKIP. Just imagine the outrage you’ll feel if Clegg is excluded, then consider how easy it will be for those nationalist parties to channel that outrage to fit their own narratives.

    It just seems to me an incredibly divisive and irresponsible risk to take for the sake of a bit of titilation we’ve managed perfectly well without for hundreds of years.

  • The debates that are most applicable to our model are the Canadian, or Swedish debates, where again they’re choosing representatives rather than a government, and in a multi-party system. The Canadians at their last election had the five party leaders (Tory, Liberal, Bloc Quebecois, New Democrat, Green) debate once in English, once in French. SVT have annoyingly taken down their 2006 coverage now, but from what I recall, the last Swedish debate also had several parties present (not merely those which might furnish a PM).

    I don’t see how informing people about what various parties stand for constitutes an ‘irresponsible risk’, and I’m sure there’ll be a lot of debate as to the format they should be held in. Nobody could make a case for restricting it to merely 2 (but bless ConHome’s terrified cotton socks for trying), because we don’t elect a Prime Minister in the same way France or America elect a President, we don’t have that direct link to our government. At the same time, including all 200+ registered parties who’ll have a candidate somewhere would obviously be absurd. PC and SNP are the most problematic there, because although they will certainly win seats, their geographical restriction inherently limits them even further than the BQ are in Canadia, as Quebec has so many more seats, proportionally to the Canadian House of Commons.

    The obvious answer there would be to have several debates, two of which would be held simultaneously and one broadcast each to Wales and Scotland with the applicable representative on each one. This does, however, risk hitting the same problem as Proportional Representation, that being that in order to reflect everything properly, the resolution has to be so high (in PR, number of seats, in debates, number of debates) that you start entering…. quite silly territory to cover everything in the required depth.

  • Iainm –

    Simple solution:

    BBC Scot/ Wales, ITV Wales/Scot, Alba/S4C can have 4-way debates [but with their UK parliamentary leaders] – English broadcasters can have 3-way.

    Sky will do as they please but could offer the 4-way on the red button (in the way they offer Welsh-language commentary on football matches)

  • @crewegwyn

    Fabulous idea, but I’d bet my next meal (not a wager I take likely) that you can’t get Brown, Cameron and Clegg, and the various TV networks, to agree to it.

  • It is a total farce unless every party who is putting up for election is able to take part in the debate. If only the three main parties are involved there is no danger to the powers that be to the status quo, so I do not support it unless every party is involved, but they will never allow that as they do not want any change.

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