Election campaign

Time is running out for debate about the TV debates

Spool back five years. It’s just before Christmas 2009, most news organisations are winding down for the festive season, when suddenly an announcement is made confirming there will be live TV debates during the 2010 general election campaign. Cue much rejoicing, and not a little relief, that this long-rumoured moment of political history is finally about to come to pass.

The news broke on 21 December. Discussions had been taking place for months between Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and various broadcasters, but this was the first time anything definite had been made public.   

It then took a further two months to agree the 76 rules under which the debates would take place. The upshot was three debates at weekly intervals during April 2010, ending the penultimate week of the campaign, staged sequentially by ITV, Sky News and the BBC. A combined total of 22 million people tuned in.

Spool back to the present day. We’re now a couple of weeks away from the point in 2009 when the debates were confirmed. Discussions have once again been going on for months between all the main parties, this time including Ukip and the Greens. But as yet there is no sign of agreement, no word of a compromise, not even on the participants let alone the schedule.

Time is running out. If nothing is announced before the end of the year, the likelihood seems remote of anything being agreed in time for the formal start of the election campaign on 30 March. Cynics will say this is precisely what certain prospective participants in the debates most desire*. Sceptics will say there was never any chance of an agreement, given the increased number of parties and their associate egos jostling for a platform.

The irony is there will be far more time for debates within the 2015 election campaign than in 2010. The gap between the dissolution of parliament on 30 March and polling day on 7 May is 37 days. Compare that with just 23 days in 2010, when the debates took place at weekly intervals. In 2015 there will be enough space for the debates to take place fortnightly – which is exactly what the broadcasters have suggested, specifically 2, 16 and 30 April.

As I noted previously, fortnightly debates would establish a very different rhythm to the campaign than in 2010. We’d have much longer gaps between the build-up and post-mortem for each encounter. And given there’s such a long haul from dissolution to election day, fortnightly debates might even help create momentum where it otherwise might be flagging.

But all this seems increasingly academic. If you’re minded to believe in Christmas miracles, it feels like one is needed for the debates to happen. And if you don’t, maybe all that’s left is to lock the negotiators in a room for as long as is necessary – even until midnight on Christmas Eve.

*David Cameron, namely.


One response to “Time is running out for debate about the TV debates

  1. I’m not particularly a fan of leader debates – we do not have a presidential voting system. When we go into the voting booths unless we are in Witney/Doncaster North we are not voting for Cameron or Miliband, we are voting for the constituency MP and the party they represent.

    That said, if we are to have the debates, then they need to be as fair as possible – we need to include UKIP and the Greens. And there need to be Scottish/Welsh/Northern Irish debates featuring all the main parties which represent these parts of the UK.

    Will it happen this time? On balance I think it will, but as you mention there’s a lot of negotiating to sort out. Will they change the elections? Probably not – if the Greens are included they will be the biggest beneficiary as they have the lowest profile amongst electorate, but this is unlikely to translate into new seats, UKIP are riding high but I think despite Farage being a v good media performer UKIP will be under more scrutiny. Last time round I remember a lot of people making a distinction between ‘who won the debate’ and who they really want to vote for. The consensus was that ‘Clegg won’ but the Lib Dems didn’t do that brilliantly as result.

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