Opinion by Andy Hume
This year’s UK General Election will be the first to feature televised debates between the leaders of the three main parties
Election Debates will be covering all three debates, which are slated for Thursday 15th, 22nd and 29th April 2010, and inviting a range of experienced adjudicators from across the political spectrum, and indeed across the world, to render their verdicts on each encounter from the perspective of years of watching and assessing debates, and sorting fact from assertion, pleasing rhetoric from convincing argument.
Previous failed attempts
Previous bids to bring the party leaders together on TV have come to nothing, usually because one or other of the protagonists has felt that they had little to gain from such an engagement.
Margaret Thatcher was challenged to a debate by the sitting Prime Minister Jim Callaghan in 1979, but was unwilling to risk her double-digit poll lead in front of the cameras.
Two decades later, in the general election of 1997, the Conservatives tried to use the debate issue to eat into Tony Blair’s 20-point lead, infamously employing a man in a chicken suit to follow the opposition leader around the campaign trail trying to highlight his supposed cowardice in avoiding a televised showdown. A shameless rip-off from the chicken that followed George Bush Snr for the same purpose in 1992.
So perhaps the most surprising aspect of these debates is that they are taking place at all. Unusually, though, each of the three party leaders has something to gain from engaging with his opponents this time round, and the resulting debates may set a powerful precedent for future elections, as well as setting the media narrative for this one.
Format for UK debates
There will be three 90-minute debates, to be broadcast by ITV, Sky and the BBC on consecutive Thursdays during the campaign, focusing on domestic, international and economic affairs respectively.
Around half of each debate will centre on the chosen theme, with the second half reverting to more general lines of questioning.
A demographically and politically balanced audience will submit questions in advance to the broadcasters, from which a range will be approved for audience members to ask of the leaders, with an opportunity for viewers to email in questions of their own.
The format will be broadly similar to a US Presidential debate; after a brief opening statement, the three leaders will have a minute to answer each question and a further minute to respond to the answers, with further debate time between the speakers at the discretion of the moderator, whose role will be restricted to ensuring equal treatment of all participants, and perhaps seeking factual clarifications where required.
Not without criticism
This agreed format has not escaped criticism. Some argue that election debates have no place in a political system which is parliamentary rather than presidential, although the focus on leaders in modern campaigns makes such criticisms seem a little dated.
In an era where even leaders’ wives are the subjects of close press attention, it is unrealistic to imagine that the constitutional fiction of the Prime Minister as merely primus inter pares should be allowed to keep British politics grounded in the 19th Century.
A more serious problem is that minor and regional parties are excluded from the format altogether. In particular, the Scottish National Party and their Welsh counterparts have protested strongly at being excluded from the debates, despite being in government in both their respective devolved assemblies.
Various proposed measures, including separate regional debates in both countries and formalised “rights of reply” on the various broadcasters’ pundits’ panels, may mitigate but not remove this perceived unfairness.
Many critics use the experience of American presidential debates to predict that these will be stilted and unnatural affairs which will lack true interactivity. This is a real danger, as Election Debates has previously commented.
Hopefully, the provision for “free discussion” between the leaders – which should, crucially, allow them to address each other’s points directly – will allow for at least some genuine spontaneity.
But the opportunity for rebuttal, challenge and direct engagement is the hallmark of true debate, and without it, these contests will be pale shadows of the real thing. Best, perhaps, to reserve judgement at this stage, with fingers crossed.