Since they were trialled in the run up to the 2010 general election, the expectation has always been that presidential style election debates were here to stay. Coalition politics and a proliferation of smaller parties has presented broadcasters this time round with a puzzle.
The first proposals for the debates featured the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP, much to the consternation of the Greens. The loudest voice of consternation came from one of their newfound supporters… David Cameron. Though ruled that the Greens were not a “major” party despite having an MP, the Prime Minister said that he would not take part in any debates without the Greens present. Was it Cameron’s attempt to try and split the left wing vote live on air, or just an excuse to avoid the debates?
For an incumbent of a political office, any form of formalised debate with opposition parties would be approached with caution. Gordon Brown agreed to the debates in 2010 because his personal ratings were so low that he could only benefit from them. For David Cameron, the equation is not quite the same. His personal ratings are still better than his main opponent, Ed Miliband, though the debates tend to act as a leveller, placing all speakers on an equal platform.
Broadcasters went back to the drawing board and delivered Cameron a new proposal: A debate between seven leaders; Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem, UKIP, Green, Plaid Cymru and SNP. Cameron and Miliband would face off in two further debates. The broadcasters are also clear that the debates are going ahead, whether party leaders agree to them or not.
The star of the 2010 debates captured the public’s imagination. Nick Clegg’s impressive performance, bolstered no doubt by Gordon Brown’s “I agree with Nick” mantra, raised his party’s profile. In the end though, this did not translate into seats; the Lib Dems lost 5, in part due to boundary changes.
The broadcasters’ proposal has many possible effects. The uncertainty with which we approach the election means it is anyone’s guess which parties will be the key players in forming coalitions in the next parliament, and more worryingly whether or not those parties will, even when partnered, have enough votes to form a majority government (as in the small possibility that Labour or Tory seats combined with the next largest party still don’t create majority administrations). It is fair to say that the drama of the TV debates engages more people in the political process and brings the election to life.
Debates also call into question whether this is the type of politics we want. TV debates often put personality and charisma ahead of reasoned debate, especially when evaluating the “winners” of an exchange. It becomes about a clash of personalities and may lack the depth that people need to make an informed decision. Not to mention the fact that with seven party leaders they may all struggle to get a word in edgeways, encouraging them to whip out the soundbites and one-liners.
The public and media appetite for these debates will mean that they take place. However, will the endless soundbites and post-debate spin presented by seven different parties merely confuse the public even more and switch them off politics? Worse still, we now see calls for geographically limited and nationally irrelevant parties to be included, from the Northern Irish DUP to the SNP, Plaid Cymru and more. Or have we found a new way to engage people in the political process, and a new way to connect with otherwise apathetic members of society? All we do know is that the debate about the debates will continue right up until… well, the debates.
Amatey Doku is a main presenter on Cam FM’s new politics show “The Weekly Brief” broadcasted on Thursdays at 4:30pm.