Tuesday 22 December 2009

How election debates do (and don't) matter

The televised election debates, which have now been confirmed, are good news for democratic engagement.

It is to the credit of both Gordon Brown and David Cameron that they will take place. Once they happen the first time, I expect they will become routinely part of election campaigns.

Parochial partisan concerns that they could (mildly) boost the Liberal Democrats are a poor reason to refuse to join the large number of Parliamentary democracies who regularly hold such debates, as Jonathan Isaby argues well on ConservativeHome.

What is much less likely is that they will prove game-changers in the campaign. As I noted in a previous post. Even a (rare) clear points victory may not mean that much on election day, as Germany's Frank Walter Steinmeier found out in last Autumn's German campaign.

But nor is the common concern that they dumb down political debate from where we are now convincing. In fact, we will see ten to fifteen million people watching some of the straightest "talking head TV" since the black and white age of AJP Taylor. Simon Cowell's production advice will not be needed.

The broadcasters may be thinking about what they can do with audience participation to liven this up.

Here's an idea: don't!


Unknown said...

Would your rejection of audience participation extend to being able to question the leaders?

Mark Pack said...

It's questions from the public that most often put politicians on the spot (partly because genuine personal outrage is hard to dodge). So it would be a shame if the format doesn't allow for this.

Anonymous said...

I am concerned that personalities not policies will win out here. Besides, in the USA the debates work fine with a presidential system, when they do vote for one of the candidates. The vast majority in this country will not be able to vote for Brown/Clegg/Cameron, but rather their local candidate.

Sunder Katwala said...

Thanks for comments. A bit imprecisely argued by me in the first place. No, I am not against members of the public putting some of the questions in one or more of the debates, as I am sure is likely. I was trying to argue against other ways to jazz up the format - eg, hearing audience views on responses, etc, and come to think of it, scrolling red button/text responses on screen, etc.

* warelane ... a great many parliamentary democracies have leadership debates: eg Germany, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Austria, Australia, Greece, New Zealand and no doubt many others. I don't think we would have a less leadership-focused national campaign without them, and having a PM and other policy debates alongside interviews and news coverage seems a good thing; along with local hustings between candidates too.