To debate or not to debate? Just two years after this dilemma last faced the leaders of Britain’s major (and in some cases minor) political parties, they have once more been weighing up the pros and cons of going toe-to-toe with their rivals on primetime television. For their part, the broadcasters are also facing another set of tricky decisions. Do they go ahead with debates that might not feature either the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition? Do they risk “empty-chairing” a Prime Minister who is likely to have a very large majority at her disposal after the election? And how much attention do they pay to the various parties’ positions in the polls at such short notice?
Beyond the morass of political, psephological and legal complexities which constrain these choices, the undeniable fact remains that a majority of the public are not impressed by the party leaders’ attempts to wriggle out of what is increasingly seen by the public as their civic duty to turn up and thrash it out with their opponents in front of the cameras.
It is highly frustrating that some leaders can get away with putting in a no-show, but ultimately inevitable that a leader’s lack of willingness to debate will feature fairly low down the average voter’s list of concerns when they enter the polling station. For that reason, to institutionalise TV election debates as a permanent fixture of our political landscape, they will have to be made to appeal to the self-interest of all those we would wish to participate. The best way to do that would be for some kind of non-partisan commission to be set up and given authority over organising debates, as happens in the US. No recent presidential candidate who was ahead in the polls stateside has been able to boycott debates there.
Unfortunately, for this to happen prior to the next general election it is likely to require the consent of the person most obstinately refusing to debate this time around. I can see how Theresa May’s position isn’t now going to change this side of the 8th June, but if she looks further ahead she should realise that there is little long-term cost to the Conservative Party in helping to set up mechanisms that would ensure debates in the future. However secure the Tories feel as the “natural party of government” at present, they will not occupy this position forever. If I enjoyed a flutter, I would be prepared to put plenty of money on the next Tory leader of the opposition who finds themselves trailing in the polls calling for a TV debate with their opponent. By setting up a debates commission in the next few years, May can throw that unfortunate individual a life-jacket in advance while also providing the public with what they expect.
Of course, none of this should be necessary. Party leaders should be able to see far enough beyond their own narrow sectional interest to appreciate the value of TV debates, and that in the absence of a commission the broadcasters are the people best placed to impartially decide the formats, the criteria for inclusion and the rules.
Theresa May, David Cameron and others who’ve gone before them should have put respect for democracy, scrutiny and accountability before their personal and party interest. If you’re ahead in the polls already, you can cope without any extra advantages. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn should be following Ed Miliband’s example, and allowing the broadcasters to decide whom, when and where he debates. It may or may not advantage him to withdraw now (there’s a strong case that it doesn’t), but he too should be in front of the cameras regardless of party interest. If he isn’t, the broadcasters should have the guts to empty chair both him and the PM.
Finally, the other party leaders should have the humility to accept that there has to be some kind of cut-off in the level of support required in opinion polls or the number of seats held in parliament that determines who qualifies for debates, and how many they qualify for. We aren’t in the simple position we occupied back in 2010 when it seemed a no-brainer to include three leaders in three debates, and there are cases that can be made for the inclusion of many different parties, but debates lose some of their value if the principle contenders to reside in 10, Downing Street and their most likely king (or queen) makers are interrupted during their most interesting exchanges by no-hopers that few people are considering voting for, assuming they even can. Yes, I’m talking to you Caroline Lucas. And you Leanne Wood.
One of the advantages of setting up a debates commission would be that criteria for inclusion could be established objectively ahead of time, meaning that everybody would know where they stood and the level of support they were aiming for in every election. That ought to cut out most of the squabbling and attention-seeking. My suggestion would be that such a sensible format would probably lead this time to at least one head-to-head debate between May and Corbyn, and at least one featuring Tim Farron, Paul Nuttall and Angus Robertson (as he is the person who actually leads the SNP at Westminster). Extra debates for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would feature an appropriate number of debates for each of the figures seeking to lead their party’s contingent of MPs at Westminster based on the levels of support for each of those parties in their respective corners of the UK. But I’ll happily submit that there are other acceptable ways of organising debates. The most important thing is ensuring they happen in the first place.
For now, we can only live in hope that the foot-dragging ends, if not in time for this election then at least soon enough for the next one. TV debates aren’t a silver bullet for lack of voter engagement with politics, nor are they a guarantor of enlightening, useful exchanges that help us understand the different ideas put forward by different parties before we vote. But they serve some purpose, and at the moment, faced with the prospect of no meaningful debate in this election campaign, the only conclusions we are able to draw about at least two of our party leaders from this lastest fracas are that they are self-serving cowards. If they want to change our minds about that, they know what to do.
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