TV debate between party leaders: it’s only taken 46 years

The first proposals for a TV debate between party leaders were made for the 1964 general election. For all the talk of the power of the media, it will have taken 46 years for them to get their wish. It’s a credit to Sky that after so many years they finally were the broadcaster willing to call the bluff of party leaders and be willing to empty chair any who didn’t turn up – hence forcing the current agreement. The media certainly do have wider responsibilities than their own immediate self-interest, but it’s quite remarkable that for 46 years they’ve left party leaders dictate to them on what format they want.

One of the planned debate chairs – David Dimbleby – has in fact been fronting TV news programmes since 1962. After numerous elections when he would have been a strong contender for chairing a debate, he will finally get to do so. Alastair Stewart hasn’t been around quite that long, but even he started TV broadcasting in the 1970s. Whilst the TV debates will be new for 2010, this isn’t a new cast of chairs. (The third, Adam Boulton, is a sprightly youngster by comparison, having started news programming only in the 1980s and being just three when Dimbleby started.)

One very welcome throwback to the old days of TV is the planned length of the debates. At 85-90 minutes, there are very few programmes that last that long now, live sports and feature films aside. None of the speeding up and cutting down of the length of political news here.

The details of the formats are still to be decided and, hopefully, the very traditional safe choice of debate chairs does not mean that there will not be some imagination applied to the formats. One of the patterns from TV debates both in the UK and elsewhere is that it is often questions from the public which most put politicians on the spot.

Finally a plea: no, TV debates don’t only happen in the US. They also happen, for example, in Australian and Canadian (federal) elections. With both those countries having a Prime Ministerial system (and one with a first past the post election system for the lower house), they are far better places to look than the US. Why pick on the US to talk about when it is so much less like the UK than other countries which also have TV debates between party leaders? (Yes, Guardian, I mean you, but kudos to the Telegraph for breaking the usual US-addiction.)

A footnote to mull over Christmas: each party will most likely put its leader through some practice debates, with other people acting the role of the other leaders. So who in the Liberal Democrats is most suited to take the role of Gordon Brown or David Cameron…?

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  • Great news but I see one disadvantage- these debates will reinforce the perception that politics is men talking to other men.

  • Stanley Theed 21st Dec '09 - 8:00pm

    Great news. I have every faith in Nick doing well in any debate between the three party leaders. However, the fact that there are three could lead to two attempting to minimise the presence of the third. I am sure Nick and his team will be ready for this approach from the ‘Labatory’ parties should it occur. It will be interesting to learn of the format for the debates. I am pleased to learn that on each occasion there will be an experienced chairman.


    The first will be on ITV, the second on Sky and the third on the BBC.

    There will also be separate debates involving the main parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

    Earlier the SNP and Plaid Cymru said they should be allowed to take part in the main debates.

    The programmes will be broadcast in peak time during the General Election campaign and will be between 85 and 90 minutes long in front of a selected audience.

    ITV’s Alastair Stewart will host the first, Sky’s Adam Boulton the second and the BBC’s David Dimbleby will host the third debate.

    The format will be the same for each, although about half of each debate will be themed.

    There will be separate debates held in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland among all the main parties, which will be broadcast on BBC Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and across the UK on the BBC News Channel.

    And following the prime ministerial debates, all political parties which have significant levels of support at a national level will be offered opportunities across BBC output to respond to the issues raised in the debate.

    Discussions will resume in the new year to finalise detailed arrangements for the debates.

  • I trust Nick will be beating a path to Max Atkinson’s door very soon now.

  • Tony Gardner 22nd Dec '09 - 9:42am

    Can someone please explain to me what Nick Clegg has done to deserve a place in these debates? This is not the USA where debates are held between the candidates who might be President. Unless I am seriously mistaken Clegg cannot be Prime Minister after this General Election so what’s the point ….

  • Sure, by your own arbitrarily chosen criteria the format is fine, but one could just as easily propose other equally valid and equally arbitrary criteria which would see Clegg excluded, or smaller parties included. You know, criteria such as electoral coherence, fairness, democratic legitimacy…

    Personally, I find myself for the first time in my life agreeing 100% with Alec Salmond. In fact, as a Scot I find the proposed format so offensively myopic and so dismissive of the political reality in large parts of the UK that as a matter of principle I intend to “flip” my main residence to the flat I still own back home so that I can vote SNP.

  • Salmond is making the point about the John Major interview in the early 1990s which was blocked in Scotland. My understanding was that the law (and BBC guidance) had actually been changed since then which meant that the broadcasters could ensure “due impartiality” over the course of the campaign – i know someone’ll correct me on this if I’m wrong?

    If so, then as long as the BBC et al increase their coverage of the SNP during the election or offer suitable alternatives, then legally won’t they be covered?

    In any case, given the SNP don’t vote on matters which don’t affect Scotland, then what would they do if there’s a question about English education – just say “pass”?

  • In any case, given the SNP don’t vote on matters which don’t affect Scotland, then what would they do if there’s a question about English education – just say “pass”?

    That’s kind of my point. The general election will be of a fundamentally different nature in Scotland than in England, because the issues at stake are completely different. It’s actually more like two separate general elections being held side-by-side. Just as the Nats would have no place debating devolved issues, the Scottish public have no interest in hearing Westminster MPs debate them either.

    I don’t think there’s any workable way around this incompatibility, which is why my position isn’t that the Nats should be invited, but rather that the debates are a fundamentally bad idea in the first place. For the London media and Westminster parties to simply ignore this incompatibility and plough on regardless is deeply arrogant.

  • Dinti Batstone 22nd Dec '09 - 5:18pm

    You would have thought they could have found a top-notch female journalist to Chair at least one of the debates…!
    Instead, 92 years after women won the vote, we are looking at yet another all-male (and all-white) line-up – what a missed opportunity.

  • I appear to be alone in thinking that this is yet another nail in the coffin of representational democracy in this country. We do not elect the Prime Minister; we do not even elect a government: we vote for the man or woman we wish to represent us in the House of Commons. The majority of us, these days, choose that representative largely on the basis of the political party they belong to, but that may be a passing trend (and, indeed, has become much less true over the past sixty years). These debates will simply entrench a presidential style party political system in this country, with the performance of the party leaders on television becoming the main focus of the campaign. The rest of us might just as well not bother campaigning at all in future for all the difference it will make.

  • Paul Griffiths 22nd Dec '09 - 7:38pm

    IainM and Tony Hill are both correct, but I feel a dread inevitability. The tides that have brought us to this point were set in motion years ago, and now we are swept along with their unintended consequences.

  • Well Mark, without being an expert on Canada or Australia or knowing how many party leaders are represented in debates, they are both enormous countries with federal governments: Canada has very well-entrenched regional differences; Australia has an extremely depressing two-party system where power simply alternates between the two parties and no strong third party has managed to gain a significant foothold.

  • The point about Australia and Canada being federal states is that federal government diffuses power to an extent: politicians at a federal level have a local profile as ministers/shadow ministers. We can see that in our own quasi federal system, in Scotland at least, where I wouldn’t expect the leaders’ debate to have a huge impact despite Alex Salmond’s legitimate fears. I would also suspect that Australia and Canada have a regionally based news industry to a much greater extent than we do in this country, although I don’t know whether it has a greater plurality of views than ours. There are also significant cultural differences between England, which is essentially the area that makes the difference here, and Australia and Canada, which I would suggest make the English more likely to behave in a uniform way (Falklands/Lady Diana/fuel protests). Admittedly, the uniform swings that were the norm for much of the post war period have substantially lessened during recent elections: I wouldn’t bet on that being the case for the 2010 election though.

  • Ok so they are all white, middle aged men Dinti. Who gives a toss? We know women exist, we know women politicians exist and can even become prime minister: so why does a TV debate need to point these things out?

    You’ll be complaining next that the new Doctor Who should be a woman. Although I do think it’s about time they had someone other than a white man to play the iconic role.

3 Trackbacks

  • By Is Danny Finkelstein right about televised party leader debates? on Wed 23rd December 2009 at 12:52 am.

    […] on the evidence from the US (only – not from other Parliamentary democracies with TV debates, tsk tsk). However, there is some very relevant evidence from the UK. It’s from the polling carried […]

  • […] on the evidence from the US (only – not from other Parliamentary democracies with TV debates, tsk tsk). However, there is some very relevant evidence from the UK. It’s from the polling carried […]

  • By What we’ve been saying about the general election on Wed 24th February 2010 at 7:50 pm.

    […] come in even more useful than usual this time round, what with TV debates on the way. It’s only taken 46 years to get to such debates, so I’ve had plenty of time to prepare ten predictions for them, including the worms and why […]

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