It’s time to stop debating about debates

Leadership debates

Will they, won’t they? If so, will it be 3×3 or 2+2? Following the recent debates about Europe between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage, the discussions and speculation about the leaders’ TV debates has begun. Clegg wants to debate with Ed Miliband and David Cameron. Cameron wants Miliband on his own or, preferably, no debates at all. Farage wants attention wherever he can find it. Hell will freeze over before Cameron lets Farage in. Only Miliband, it seems, is relaxed about the cast list and format of prospective leaders’ debates. This has led seasoned commentators and, privately, senior broadcasters, to express doubt that TV leaders’ debates will happen in 2015.

That would be extraordinary. Whatever one’s view of the 2010 debates (and their impact on the eventual result is still contested) there is incontrovertible and broadly accepted evidence that they raised interest, engagement and turnout, particularly among young people. To deprive the public of such an important democratic innovation in transparency and accountability would be a seriously retrograde step.

A mythology has settled on parts of the Conservative party that the debates lost Cameron the election. The House of Lords is currently conducting an inquiry into the 2010 debates and their impact and its conclusions are awaited with interest. But it seems clear to me that there was little appetite before, during or since the 2010  election for a majority Tory government. The first debate, it is true, ignited ‘Cleggmania’, as the relatively unknown, telegenic Liberal Democrat leader burst into the consciousness of a lot of people for the first time. But this was shortlived and the Liberal Democrats ended up losing seats.

Debates remain manifestly in the Liberal Democrats’ interest. Although more difficult this time, as Clegg will have to defend the coalition’s record, with their dire ratings and need for re-differentiation from the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats need them badly. Miliband excels in town hall-style events – the format favoured for the debates – and those who know him better than I do are confident he would do well. He is also the insurgent, or ‘change’, candidate, a mantle no longer available to Clegg. The broadcasters’ starting point will be 3×3 – the same as 2010. This may provoke challenges from the United Kingdom Independence party and other smaller parties – but unless Ukip start winning Westminster by-elections the broadcasters should be able to resist these demands.

So it is likely to be Cameron and the Tories who decide if the debates happen or not. Given the high stakes, decisions are likely to be taken nearer the time, with a close eye on the opinion polls. That is a shame, as the last thing any politician should want between now and the campaign is a long drawn-out debate about the debates, rather than a focus on policy and substance. The media will rightly give a rough ride to the politician or party that stops the debates happening, especially given the 2010 precedent. Their opponents will also have a field day with the challenge: ‘What are you frightened of?’ That is why it is in the interests of all three of the main Westminster parties to sign up in principle now, while leaving negotiations on the detail until nearer the time.

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Ben Bradshaw MP is former secretary of state for culture, media and sport

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  • Anonymous

    The 2010 debates were bad for Labour who had Gordon Brown as PM and he was unable to offer the kind of response that Clegg and Cameron could offer without even glancing at the script. Whether Miliband will be over his student activist phase by April/May 2015 we can only hope someone has told him not to wave his arms and shake his head as if the audience were unable to understand his emotions without gesticulation. I cannot see how Clegg can be allowed to participate when he was part of the government and the government would be represented by Cameron. A rule should be established about what percentage of the vote at the previous election is required before any party leader could be allowed to participate, I suggest 5% of total votes cast. That would allow Farage in during the 2020 election and might get rid of the LibDems for good.

  • Roy Steele

    A recent [extremely accurate] “U-Suk-Yerthumb” Poll estimated that there were 1% of people who may be termed Uber-Wealthy -filthy rich- in the West [UK/USA/Falklands] and 0.01% in the East [Russia/China/Cuba]. – which consisted of 10 people [maybe 5 on week-ends and golf days] and these [10] (I assume men and women?) ran the whole shooting-match in the East & the West.

    The same, very accurate survey, went on to say that Govts were mere puppets to these few godlike corporate Bosses [and Boss-esses].
    Can this be true? And if so, why not start a debate on how the many can defeat the few?
    Trotsky’s socialism may have been a bit rough around the edges, but he was all about the many not the few. Politics should be a ‘must learn’ in primary schools up there with Home Economics, RI, Debating, and the Dead Poets’ Society.