‘Lights, camera, discussion? The role of televised debates in modern elections’, Centre for Public Impact, 26 April 2017

Theresa May, it would appear, has poured water on the idea of televised leader’s debates during the ‘snap’ UK general election she’s just called.  Depending on your point of view, this means either that she is ‘running scared of the voters’ or is focusing on ‘getting on with the job’ and ‘meeting voters all around the country on the campaign trail’.

But, in an era in which so many citizens are supposedly feeling disconnected from the so-called ‘political class’, is she passing up a valuable opportunity to engage people in a process which, after all, is supposed to be at the very heart of a democracy – the chance to choose who governs us over the next few years?

Some would say no, not least because such debates have considerable downsides.  For one thing, the media’s obsession with them crowds out so much else. For another, they skew the conversation away from parties and their platforms and towards a handful of men and women who have been chosen (often by a highly unrepresentative bunch of people, be they grassroots members or their colleagues) to lead them.

Taking firmer root?

In the UK, we live in a parliamentary democracy, not a presidential system. Elections in democracies like ours are not supposed to be gladiatorial contests between individuals.  Yet more and more (though by no means all) of those democracies now seem to be going in for televised candidate debates.

For my sins, I write a comparative introduction to European politics that covers the whole continent but contains tables and figures which often focus on eleven of its countries (and before you ask, yes, the UK is – and always will be – one of them!).  The new edition is just about to come out and, among other things, asks how many of those eleven effectively always stage such debates during elections.

The answer is six, although, given France held them again this year (and what marathons they were!), we should probably say seven.  Only one (Hungary, if you’re interested) doesn’t, while Spain and Italy challenge a widely-held assumption, namely that staging televised debates at one general election means that such debates are bound be held at the next.

In fact, there is no such guarantee.  The agreement of parties and their leaders to debates cannot be taken for granted from one election to the next, mainly because their participation owes little or nothing to their concerns about legitimacy and public engagement and everything to their perceived self-interest.

Opposition parties, especially if they are small and spend most of the time denied the oxygen of publicity by the media, see them as a chance to right that wrong and level the playing field.  Governing parties, especially if they think they are going to win an election (and, after all, that consideration often determines whether or not they call an election in the first place), may well prefer to avoid them, primarily because they provide unwelcome exposure for their opponents and because they represent an unnecessary risk.

This self-interested logic, rather than the spirit of Demosthenes, is what is driving calls by the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the rest for televised debates during this campaign. And it is clearly driving Mrs May’s decision to turn them down.

In the spotlight

It is worthwhile noting that May’s refusal to get involved may only be an opening gambit: she will almost certainly agree to something less than a full debate – perhaps a show in which leaders, separately, are grilled some combination of an interviewer and a studio audience. That way she can claim to have done her democratic duty.

But in some ways, the absence of fully-fledged debates will be a pity.  They do pull in big audiences.  The first to be held in the UK, the Brown-Cameron-Clegg debate in 2010, attracted 9.4 million viewers and an audience share of 37% – greater than soaps like Coronation Street and Eastenders attracted at the time.  In 2015, the seven-way leaders’ debate was watched by 7 million – a 31% share.

Of course, many of those citizens were the sort of people who normally take at least a passing interest.  But research suggests that at least some of them were people who might previously have paid no attention to the campaign.  Debates have their downsides but if they can pique the curiosity of citizens who otherwise wouldn’t engage in political discussion, then maybe those downsides are a price worth paying.

Originally published at https://www.centreforpublicimpact.org/lights-camera-action/


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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