The General Election televised Leaders Debates fiasco

Prime Minister David Cameron at the National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire, on 5 March 2015 © 2015 Gavin Drake
Prime Minister David Cameron at the National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire, on 5 March 2015
© 2015 Gavin Drake

Late last night, the Prime Minister’s director of communications, Craig Oliver, delivered what appears to be a devastating blow to the broadcasters’ plans for a series of leaders debates I’m the run up to the General Election.

In his letter, the PM’s spin doctor says that David Cameron is prepared to appear in just one televised debate of 90 minutes duration involving seven or eight leaders.

Such a debate would be nonsense – each leader, if given equal time, would speak for just a little over 10 minutes (after you include time for the presenter to introduce the programme, explain the rules of debate, identify the leaders and ask any questions).

What sort of election debate would it be where the two candidates most likely to become prime minister speak for such a short amount of time? It would be more effective to show a series of party election broadcasts back-to-back because that is all such a programme would amount to.

Mr Oliver criticises the way the broadcasters have conducted negotiations. I am not privy to the process; but I have been concerned with the way this has publicly unfolded in the past few months. I’m even more concerned after reading Mr Oliver’s letter.

There were very careful and detailed private negotiations ahead of the 2005 General Election. This does not appear to be the case this time. The broadcasters seem to have negotiated only with themselves about the format of the programmes, working on an assumption that the leaders would agree with whatever they came up with.

And in doing so, they have come up with a mish-mash which they have amended on the basis of the ding-dong Punch-and-Judy exchanges in PMQs rather than on the basis of proper negotiations.

During these exchanges, David Cameron said that there were two logical options: a head-to-head between the two people likely to become Prime Minister; or a debate with the leaders of all the parties – including the Greens and other smaller parties.

Both suggestions are arguable; but both are flawed.

The suggestion with the most flaws is the ‘everybody invited’ model. Apart from the difficulties of time, explained above, the biggest flaws are that you end up including in the debate people who have never been elected to Parliament, people who aren’t standing for Parliament, leaders of parties that have never won a single seat in a General Election, leaders of parties who are not standing in the vast majority of constituencies, and leaders of parties who couldn’t form a government even if they won every single seat they contested.

On no logical basis should they be considered to be of the same importance as the men (and it is men, this year) who could become Prime Minister.

Having said that, this model does have the advantage of ensuring that alternate voices are heard. In the British constitution we elect individual candidates in individual constituencies. The two-party state is gone, probably forever. And we shall soon find out whether the embryonic three-party system has already given way to a multi-party system where coalitions become the only certain result of a General Election.

This is the flaw with the two-party head-to-head proposal: it pre-supposes that only Labour or Conservative will win the election. History tells us that this is the most likely outcome. And opinion polls support this view. But a General Election is about the public making a choice. And we should not allow ourselves to be persuaded that the choice is only between two parties – especially when we no longer live in a two-party state.

The debates are vitally important. During the election campaign the leaders will be holding daily press conferences and will then zig-zag the country by plane, train and automobile, for a series of photo-ops to get their message across; largely unchallenged; and largely untested. The debates provide an opportunity to scrutinise their manifestoes and to put their claims under the microscope in a way that the party leaders have to engage with them.

There should be two styles of leaders debates: one type with those who could be prime minister; and another with those leading ‘alternative’ parties. I don’t like the term ‘protest vote’. People vote for particular party candidates for all sorts of reasons; and it is patronising to describe a vote for something other than ‘mainstream’ as a protest.

The first type should include the leaders of parties standing in every seat; or, to be precise, standing in enough seats so that it was mathematically possible for them to form a government by themselves – no party stands in every seat. It would be legitimate – but less democratically authentic – to include only those parties that have won seats at a general election already.

The second type should include only the smaller parties. Again, inclusion could be qualified by previous electoral success, historic share of the vote, number of seats contested, and so on.

I’m agnostic about whether such a debate should include parties representing the devolved nations. The views of the SDLP, the DUP, Plaid Cymru and the SNP, are of no interest to me when I consider how to vote in the English Midlands. But, as somebody with an interest in politics I want to understand their positions – not least if we end up with another coalition.

In both cases, participation should be restricted to leaders actually standing as candidates in the election.

But this isn’t likely to happen. Not this year, in any event. Which is a great pity. David Cameron’s stance means that the election Leaders Debates are unlikely to happen.

The broadcasters could go ahead with their plans and empty-chair the PM; but if they have conducted their planning in the way described in Craig Oliver’s letter, they could be seen as arrogant for adopting an ‘our way or the highway approach’.

For the first time in British history, the date of this year’s General Election has been known about in advance – for at least four-and-a-half years. There has been plenty of time for the broadcasters and parties to agree a format – and timing – for the debates.

After the election, a law should be brought in to establish an independent Election Television Commission – possibly as a joint working group between the Electoral Commission and Ofcom This Commission  would be responsible for agreeing the format and timing of any future election Leaders Debates. Once approved, it would be for the politicians to decide whether or not to take part; but at least broadcasters would then have legal certainty that broadcasting a ‘debate’ in such circumstances was legally permissible.

Talking of debates, I will be chairing a hustings event for candidates in the Cannock Chase constituency on Thursday 16th April, with a 7.30pm start, at Saint Luke’s Church in Cannock town centre. The Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and UKIP candidates have all accepted an invitation to take part. I’ll post more about this nearer the time, but put the date in your diary now if you live in the constituency.

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