Tuesday, 30 October 2012

TV leaders’ debates in 2015? They shouldn’t have a choice

In a week where we had the final US presidential debate, attention has switched to our own leaders’ debates and the possibility of them being replicated in the run-up to the next general election in 2015. After the novelty and intrigue of the three we were treated to in 2010, one might have been forgiven for thinking that they had now become part of the political furniture. Were it so simple.

The first signs of grumbling and discontent have emerged. Primarily it seems from the Conservatives. There is a view, amongst the grassroots anyway, that the 2010 debates harmed David Cameron and denied his party a parliamentary majority. Because the odds on him securing one this time around look slim, to say the least, why risk further damaging the party?

For now, this appears to be the main stumbling block. Added to this comes questions about the number of debates that should take place, and the format that should be adopted. For anyone who dragged themselves out of bed at 2am on a working night to watch all three presidential debates (guilty!), the idea that the UK may now bin them doesn’t go down too well.

Whatever the reservations and logistical complexities, the public are entitled to see debates return in two and a half years. In fact, I’d go further and argue that the leaders and the parties should no longer have any say. They should be guaranteed in every general election cycle. Pressure from the media, on all sides of the divide, would be a useful first step in making this happen.
Much of the criticism points to the fact that they risk presidentialising our system. Which betrays the reality. Our system is already presidential whether we agree, or like it, or not. What else towers over the party conference season if not the leader’s speech? It is the main attraction. Without it, the level of interest would be substantially less. You certainly wouldn’t expect such a strong media presence. Prime Minister’s Questions? The rough and tumble of adversarial politics, with the PM at the centre and a chance for the leader of the opposition to look, and sound, prime ministerial. The sparring between the PM and his opposite number makes the headlines, provides the talking points.

It is because Ed Miliband’s approval ratings fail to match his party’s that Labour still have much convincing to do. David Cameron almost single-handedly rebranded his party, however superficially, giving them the opportunity to govern once again. It is his falling ratings that most concern the Tory faithful. The media spotlight fixes endlessly on the party leader, sometimes to the detriment of all else.  
It is unsurprising to note the positive noises coming from Ed Miliband’s team who seem confident that he’ll embrace and relish a TV debate tussle. There has long been the view that Miliband thrives in the town-hall style format, enjoying the audience interaction. One school of thought has it that his impressive hustings performance before becoming Labour leader played a major role in his victory.

The Lib Dems are presented with an altogether different dilemma. In 2010, Nick Clegg blossomed, becoming as close to a political god as one could get on these shores, and yet his commanding and polished debating skills failed to translate into extra seats in the Commons. After everything, the Lib Dems had fewer MPs than before. In terms of who stands to benefit the most, it may be that Nick Clegg uses it as a chance to very publically rehabilitate himself. If he has stood down before then, a Vince Cable or a Tim Farron would crave such a chance to put distance between themselves and the Conservatives. This could be their party’s best hope of avoiding an electoral meltdown and salvaging something from their time in government.
The electorate are more volatile than ever before. With UKIP flirting with third place in the polls, its leader, Nigel Farage, could not unreasonably suggest that he share a platform with the other party leaders.

Yes, there are issues to be settled, with the format, I believe, top of them. The 2010 debates were formulaic and sterile, with audience members asking general and unimaginative questions, without the opportunity to respond to answers. This needs to be changed, as does plonking the leaders rigidly behind lecterns. A town-hall style format would inject verve and movement and a bit of razzmatazz into proceedings.
What we mustn’t allow to happen is for the public to be fobbed off with self-interested excuses as to why we won’t be getting TV debates before the next election. Anything which grabs our attention and provides discussion about politics can only be a good thing. Given the apathy (or should that read ‘loathing’?) that currently stalks our political landscape, our leaders can’t afford to be picky.  
This article was first published by Independent Voices on Tuesday 30th October 2012

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