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Election coverage must be about more than Leaders Debates

September 17, 2018

Today Sky News launched a campaign to make Leaders Debates an integral part of every general election.  They want an independent commission to be set up in order to set the rules on formats and participants. I was interviewed by Sky’s Jayne Secker on their lunchtime news.  It was broadcast from Bristol’s Harbourside, opposite the Arnolfini Gallery, the scene of the first Leaders Debate back in the 2010 general election. I support televised debates between the main party leaders but worry that they overshadow every other aspect of the campaign and distort TV coverage.

I remember the Bristol Sky News 2010 debate very well. The three main party leaders and their entourages all descended on what was then my Bristol West constituency.  A media circus arrived in Bristol and the faces of Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg were projected onto the outside of the Arnolfini.  It was certainly good TV exposure for Bristol but was it good for the election? Did that debate and the subsequent ones on the BBC and ITV help voters to decide who to back?

In the short run I think the debates did swing some votes.  Nick Clegg put in a great performance.  Gordon Brown said “I agree with Nick”, inadvertently providing us with a new campaign slogan. The Liberal Democrats soared towards 30% in the polls and Nick became Britain’s most popular leader.  Millions of people cast their postal votes shortly afterwards. Enthusiasm tailed off during the remainder of the campaign as the newspapers laid in to Nick and his party.  But when the Liberal Democrat shadow cabinet team met on the Saturday morning after the election I and my colleagues were in no doubt that Nick’s performance had buoyed up the party’s fortunes and won us several marginal constituencies.  First Past the Post, as usual, had suppressed the party’s seat tally.  Despite putting on a million votes compared to the 2005 election and moving up to 23% of the national vote share, the party had gone down from 63 to 57 MPs.  But 14 of those seats had been won with majorities of less than 5%.  Several of my colleagues owed their place in Parliament to Nick’s strong performance in the debates.

During the interview with Sky today I reflected that it was possible that the 2010 Sky debate had changed the course of history.  If it hadn’t happened it’s possible that the Tories would have won enough seats for David Cameron to govern alone.  There would have been no coalition.  I would probably still be an MP!  But counter-factuals are debatable and it’s just as possible that Nick would have done well in conventional coverage of an election, in the same way that Charles Kennedy (on a good day) and David Steel were regarded as campaign assets in previous elections.

While it’s debatable what effect the 2010 debates had on the outcome of the election, it’s undoubtedly true that they changed fundamentally the nature of the coverage of the election. There has always been attention on the national party leaders.  Gladstone and Lloyd George were household names.  But I recall in 2010 that the TV debates drowned out essential coverage of the issues that were at stake.  Another former Bristol MP, Tony Benn, used to say that elections should be about the issues, not the personalities.  I worry that politics is no longer “show business for ugly people” but an activity where performance counts for more than content and where it certainly helps to be “charismatic” or just look good on TV.  If debates are to return for the next election then I believe that the broadcasters have a duty to explain the issues at stake and analyse the policies on offer.

Broadcasters also need to constantly remind people that our elections for the House of Commons are 650 (or maybe 600 next time) local contests for an MP, not a national election.  The only people who can vote for a party leader are the electors in their constituencies.  Each constituency has a different political profile.

So I think Sky are right to call for debates to be embedded into our national elections.  They are right that the format should be set by an independent debates commission. Vince Cable has said that it is preferable to sort this out soon, rather than have “argy bargy” just before the next election. This is what happened in both 2015 and 2017, when David Cameron and then Theresa May declined to debate their fellow leaders. The result was a series of very cumbersome debates with far too many participants from small parties.

My preferred format would be one debate featuring the three leaders of the main political parties that fight every seat in Great Britain.  That’s currently the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties but if Brexit causes a break up of our existing parties then the commission would need to respond to allow new challenger parties a voice. There should be separate debates in Northern Ireland and a further debate in Wales and Scotland involving the nationalist leaders. The debates should be complemented by hour long in depth interviews with all of the party leaders, with additional slots for smaller parties such as UKIP and the Green Party.

Politics is in a strange place at the moment.  It would be foolish to predict with certainty who will be the main players at the next election, or even when that election will be held. But one thing is certain – the public think that their political leaders don’t get enough tough scrutiny.  Lively debates and testing interviews will be essential to restore some confidence in our politicians and generate interest in our elections.


More about Sky’s campaign here –

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