Debating the leaders’ debate

There has been a fair bit of chat in recent weeks about the prospect of a televised leaders’ debate in the run-up to the next general election. This sort of chat always comes up in the run-up to any election, but there appears to be an extra momentum this time round.

It seems as though the promise by Sky News to televise a debate come what may — even if the debate was between tubs of lard — has forced everyone’s hand, broadcasters and political parties alike. It seems as though now it is going to happen, with the involvement of all the major broadcasters. It also appears as though the three main party leaders are on board (albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm).

The end of the issue? Of course not. This is just the beginning of the matter. More details will need to be fleshed out. What format should such a debate take? Will there be a number of separate debates? And what about the role of smaller parties?

I am normally fairly ambivalent about calls for televised political debates. Those politicians who call for such a debate usually do so because they perceive that it would advantage them.

Someone like David Cameron will go for it because he is a confident performer, the momentum is behind him and the media appears to have declared him the winner already. Someone like Gordon Brown will reject it because he does not come across so well on television. This time he has been forced into it, partly because of Sky News’ promise to “empty chair” him if he didn’t, but also because refusing to appear would further the idea that Brown is a coward with poor leadership qualities.

The prospect of a televised political debate fills me with dread rather than excitement. I doubt it does much for democratic accountability. Part of me suspects that vain politicians just crave appearances on the television.

No doubt we will be served up a rather unedifying spectacle, like PMQs on steroids. I predict Punch and Judy politics a-plenty. Most likely, as with Question Time, it will be a platform for the most appalling demagoguery, complete with an audience that will clap like seals at any old nonsense.

Most of all, I think the idea of a leaders’ debate just misses the point. While it is useful to know what the major party leaders think, focusing on leaders too much is damaging to the health of our parliamentary democracy. Once again, there is a clamour to bring to Britain a feature of US politics which is a square peg in a round hole.

Televised debates are highly popular in the USA. But that is because the format is practically ready-made for the US political system. For one, the US system is a Presidential system, meaning that voters actually do elect the country’s leader. The US system is also a truly two-party system, with two Leviathans totally overshadowing any minority candidates. This makes it easy to adopt a one-on-one, head-to-head debating format.

Even though the televised debate is more-or-less a perfect fit for a US Presidential election, the format’s success is a matter for debate. In years gone by it may have provided some election-defining moments. But as I recall, the debates involving Barack Obama and John McCain, and Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, hardly set the world alight.

So what on earth makes anyone think that this gimmick will suit British politics? It seems like just another outcome of politicos’ obsession with America. It seems like the idea of someone who has mistaken his DVD box set of The West Wing for real pornography.

Our Parliamentary system doesn’t — or at least shouldn’t — place so much focus on party leaders. Very few voters will actually have any sort of say on who the Prime Minister is. I will have the option to vote for or against Gordon Brown, but only because I happen to live in his constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. I will have no say whatsoever on David Cameron or Nick Clegg.

And what of the smaller parties? In the UK, broadcasters are required to be impartial in the run-up to an election, meaning that legally broadcasters will find it difficult to lock out the small parties. Even if these other parties have little or no chance of forming the government. Even if most viewers will not be as interested in hearing from these parties.

The most noise is being made by the SNP. They are threatening legal action if an SNP representative is unable to play a part in a televised leaders’ debate.

The SNP may have a point. Even though they have only a handful of MPs, and are only contesting seats in a portion of the UK, they have a lot of support in that portion. They are not a loony fringe party. They are in fact in government in the UK. Viewers north of the border will certainly be interested to hear what the SNP have to say in the run-up to the election.

At the same time, their presence may be a distraction from the real purpose of the debate, which is basically to watch the potential future Prime Ministers partake in a spot of verbal mud-wrestling. It is, after all, a “leaders’ debate”. Despite all his ambition, Alex Salmond is highly unlikely to be the next Prime Minister, as is Angus Robertson.

Yet, what if there is the prospect of a hung Parliament? The collapse in Labour support has not been met with a real surge in support for the Conservatives. With so many parties having moderate levels of support, it is conceivable that a party like the SNP could play a king-maker role.

There is no easy answer. This is the core problem with the idea of a televised debate. It might be good for a simple, true two party system such as the USA’s. But for the UK’s more subtle and diverse politics, it won’t fit quite so well.


  1. Someone like Gordon Brown will reject it because he does not come across so well on television.

    … plus his achievements have been in the negative and his philosophy and economic sense bankrupt.

  2. I largely agree with this post.

    I’m very sceptical about the prospect of a leaders debate because I, like many (I assume!), vote on the basis of party policies, not so much on the media acumen of the party leader.

    If & when this debate happens, I doubt it will hold any lasting effect on the UK electorate. It may work in the US where individual personality seems to rule over the knitty-gritty policy ideas (e.g Obama’s election campaign, Shepard Fairey, mass media hype etc), wheres we seem to be rather pessimistic when it comes to our politics, & rather hard to win over!

    As I’m from the south, I see the SNP as a regionalist party. So if this gimmick actually happened, they shouldn’t get a seat simply because the whole UK electorate can’t vote for them. Maybe Mr. Salmond could set up a Scottish equivalent if he is so hell bent on the idea.


    Btw, keep up the great music posts!

  3. Thanks for the comment Luke. The funny thing about the SNP’s position — which I forgot to mention in this post — is that the Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray has challenged Alex Salmond to a debate on Scotland’s constitutional future. But for some reason the SNP aren’t keen on that idea…

  4. Well…
    I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much about Scottish politics, but it’s somewhat reassuring to know that petty politics isn’t just reserved to Westminster! 🙂

  5. I can see both sides of this problem, which is a result of the ramshackle nature of the UK’s constitution. Presumably the UK party leaders are going to debate devolved matters, which will make their answers irrelevant to Scotland. But it’s also stupid for the SNP to get time on a debate which will be broadcast to the whole UK. Either way, somebody’s going to be watching somebody discussing stuff which has nothing to do with them.

    I think Duncan’s solution is best – just ditch the whole thing, and let the tubs of lard have it out.