Academic Nick Anstead and I first crossed paths back at the time of the 2010 general election. Since then, he’s become even more expert and recently, hooray, joined the Liberal Democrats. Here he writes about TV party leader debates…
The news broke last week that ITV had agreed the first televised debate of the election campaign. However, in contrast to the debates of 2010 and 2015, participation in this one will be limited to Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn only. The defence of this format is that, depending on how the election pans out, either Johnson or Corbyn will end up as Prime Minister.
It is worth noting that, from a constitutional perspective, this argument is simply wrong. Both Lloyd-George and Ramsey MacDonald served as Prime Minister while their own factions made up a minority of the MPs in the governing coalition. Winston Churchill was Prime Minister from May to October 1940 without being leader of Conservative Party (the post was retained by Neville Chamberlain).
I mention these examples not as predictions or because I think such outcomes are likely (indeed, it is an interesting question to think about how the modern electorate would react to such arrangements and whether they would consider them legitimate) but rather as a reminder of an inescapable fact: the UK remains a Parliamentary democracy. As such, the only qualification for being Prime Minister is being able to command a majority in the House of Commons. This can lead to messy outcomes, especially when the flawed first-past-the-post election system is coupled with genuinely multi-party politics. Any televised election debates need to reflect this constitutional reality.
The appropriateness of a debate format should be measured by how well it reflects the current political situation in the country. It should accurately represent the party system and the choices voters are faced by when they come to fill in their ballot paper. Scotland and Wales provide the most glaring examples where a Johnson versus Corbyn head-to-head debate fails this test miserably, as they now have four or even five-party systems. In many other constituencies across the UK, it will be the Liberal Democrats providing the main opposition to one the big parties. How does the proposed debate format help voters make a more informed choice in such situations?
Debates should also be about articulating and critiquing of the full range of political ideas that matter to voters in the UK in 2019. However, the proposed ITV debate also fails this test. Despite this being branded the “Brexit election”, the proposed debate will not include anyone articulating a pro-EU membership line, even though the evidence suggests this is clearly now the preference of the plurality of the electorate.
How could we do this better? Part of the problem is that our political and journalistic class remain too fixated on the head-to-head format TV debates in the United States. They are far less aware of alternative formats used in other countries with political systems that are much more similar to our own. Canada, for example, is a Parliamentary democracy with a multi-party system and significant sub-national parties (the Bloc Québécois). Despite this, Canada held its first televised election debate in 1968.
Canadian debates have developed a transparent rationale for inclusion. In the past, to be invited to take part, parties must have a sitting Member of Parliament and be polling above 5 per cent nationally (it is worth noting that these qualification rules have become slightly more involved since Canada moved to having an independent Leaders’ Debate Commission in 2018, an institution the UK should be looking to emulate).
The clarity of these rules matter, as it makes it much harder to exclude smaller parties who meet the criteria. In 2008 the Green Party met the entry requirement, but some of the larger parties threatened broadcasters with non-cooperation if they were invited. The broadcasters complied, withdrawing the invitation to the Greens. However, the public backlash was such that the Greens were able to force their way back into the debate.
In contrast debate inclusion in the UK is the product of backroom deals cut between political parties and broadcasters. The criteria for inclusion are never spelt out in clear terms.
On balance, the evidence suggests that TV debates are a good thing. They generate interest in the election and can help voters make informed decisions. However, this is only true if they give citizens access to the full range of options before them. The ITV debate, as currently proposed, spectacularly fails to do this. For this reason, it undermines democratic debate rather than enhancing it.
Nick Anstead is an Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His archive of research can be assessed here, including his comparative work on TV debates in Parliamentary democracies. Nick is a member of the Liberal Democrats and tweets @nickanstead.
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