TV party leaders election debates: what do the rules signify?

Despite some alarms along the way, the rules are now set for the first-ever head-to-head general election debates in the UK a mere 46 years after the first suggestion.

(And no, yawn yawn, it isn’t only in the US that such debates take place: the US wasn’t first and the US isn’t a particularly good place to look for lessons, what with not being a Parliamentary democracy unlike many of the other countries which also have TV debates.)

Now the rules are set, what do they tell us about how the debates may play out?

As expected, there will be one a week over the three main full weeks of the election campaign. Depending on when in the week they are held, that may have a significant impact on postal voting: will people hold off returning postal votes until after they’ve watched the debates?

Potentially two of the debates will take place after the first wave of postal ballots have hit doormats so we could see many postal voters voting later than usual. That matters both for administrators (more returned envelopes to process in less time) and for campaigners (more time to persuade people to change their votes).

ITV is sticking to making the TV feed available to other broadcasters only after the debate has finished, unlike BBC and Sky who will make it available live. However, even ITV will make an online version available live, which means we could see worms or one sort or another added to each debate (step forward Channel 4 perhaps?)

The detailed format rules make for an illuminating compare and contrast with similar rules used in other countries. Here there has been huge concern over how the audience might react to answers (remember Tony Blair’s monstering when the BBC did back-to-back interviews with the party leaders in 2005?). Hence the detailed rules go on at some length about how the audience (a) won’t be packed, (b) won’t be very large and (c) won’t get to do much. 80% of the audience will have political preferences, divided in the ration 7:7:5 between Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem.

The audience will be kept pretty quiet: no applause during the debate (in the name of maximising the party leaders’ speaking time), no follow ups to questions and in fact nothing other than pre-selected questions and very tightly controlled and limited audience shots.

The rules however do not explicitly rule out the audience communicating by stomping out a message in Morse code with their feet (“Help! We’re trapped!”). So listen carefully.

There is scope for some use of the internet and other techniques to gather in questions but in the end questions will be asked by people in the room. Broadcasters may use a range of ways to gather in questions in advance from around the country, but for one of those then to be asked the person will need to be in the room at the time – save that the debate moderators (chairs) may read out some questions submitted via email.

Questions will have to be about election issues and applicable to all three parties with a minute each for answers, a minute each for responses to the other two answers and four minutes of general debate on the question. Those four minute slots could be crucial to making or breaking a debate performance as be too aggressive to get heard and you’ll lose points for churlishness and rudeness, but be too meek at getting in on the discussion and you’ll lose points for weakness and silence.

Unlike other countries, and perhaps because all three party leaders are so used to being interviewed, the format rules do not get into absurd detail on what shape the glasses of water shall be and so on but there is a curious reference to handshakes. They will shake hands at the end of the debate. No marching on and having a mini-kerfuffle over who shakes whose hand in what order and with what level of enthusiasm at the start. A lesson learnt there perhaps from the occasional incidents overseas.

Meanwhile, I’m still standing by my ten predictions for the televised party leader debates, particularly prediction number ten.

Here are the principles and then format documents in full:


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