The Big Debating Society

In 1960 the USA had a Presidential Election. The two candidates were talked into appearing on television for a face-to-face debate as to who was best. The somewhat notorious result was that John Kennedy (Democrat) came across better on the television and Richard Nixon (Republican) came across better on radio – Nixon sweated too much under the lights. Both men became President – Kennedy won that election and Nixon won a different one eight years later. Neither got to lose subsequent elections or face the constitutional chopper, since Kennedy was murdered and Nixon suffered political death as a result of the Watergate scandal.

The UK ruled out such things, with Prime Minister Tony Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell arguing in 2001 that UK general elections are electing MPs and ultimately a Government, not a specific President. However, the heavy centralisation of emphasis on the character of the Prime Minister over the last couple of decades has had something of an impact on these things – as has the fact that the US always seems to enjoy theirs debates so various sectors of society, particularly the media, like the idea of importing them. The import duly took place in 2010, where the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Lesser Party bullied the Prime Minister of the time into the idea.

The problem is that in the UK a debate involving candidates for the Head of State position would amount to the Queen and Prince Charles answering questions on political positions without actually commenting on any of them, which would not make the most illuminating viewing. So the candidates for Head of Government have to do it instead.

In 2010 the Leader of the Opposition had a multitude of good reasons for the experiment, which he inadvertently forgot to describe as an experiment, including the facts that nobody had heard of the Leader of the Lesser Party and that the Prime Minister was really quite atrocious at this sort of question-answering situation and had a reputation for becoming impatient. In the event the Prime Minister acquitted himself rather well, even when a couple of days before the last debate a car he had just got into after talking sympathetically to a voter was recorded driving off making muttering noises about bigots.

The Leader of the Lesser Party also did rather well and greatly rose his public profile, being able to portray himself as the middle person – particularly since the broadcasters obligingly put him in the middle position where he could be better beaten up by the established party leaders. The electorate believed his claims to be able to do things differently, though not enough to vote for his voting reform referendum a year later once he was in Government.

The former Leader of the Opposition is now rather against the whole idea. The Leader of the Lesser Party is hoping for a chance to defend his record since the last set of debates. The current Leader of the Opposition is shouting about cowards and demanding that the leader of the largest and oldest of the UK’s political parties be “empty-chaired”. The Leaders of Even Lesser Parties are lining up to demand the right to go the same way as the Leader of the Lesser Party, who the public seem to now be indifferent to after some years of him being one of the most hated people in Britain. (He has, however, been reduced to suddenly offering a Cornish Assembly in what it is tempting to say is a naked attempt to save at least one of his seats on the peninsular, all of which are expected to be blue after the next election. This author would naturally prefer re-opening of the Withered Arm, but will make do with being curious as to how Plymouth will be managed regarding said Assembly.)

The idea of the debates is that they open up political discussion to a mass audience and show us what politicians really think when put on the spot. Supporters can happily argue that voters can become more informed without leaving their living rooms. This could equally be achieved by supplying the voters with free newspapers and probably leave them better informed in the process.

This author doesn’t like expressing any opinion without a chance to read up on it first – probably a result of some legal training. The option doesn’t exist in a television debate. The “panellists” have to be right up on any given policy position and prepared to defend it. Of course, for the depth available on the average television debate – which is tragically not going to involve the in-depth coverage of the Intercity Express Programme new train financing package or any form of equivalent – not very much reading up beforehand would be required.

For a one-on-one debate between Cameron and Miliband, we can probably look forward to something akin to the weekly spectacle of Prime Minister’s Questions. Neither will do a terribly good job at answering the question and both will happily hurl follow-on questions, misconstrued policies and direct insults at the other side. This will do nothing for enhancing the status of politicians. Nor will an in-depth discussion of their policies on youth unemployment. One side will give every youth who’s been out of Education, Employment and Training for six months a job. The other side will remove the unemployment benefits from every youth who’s been out of Education, Employment and Training for six months who won’t then do part-time work for a charity. In both cases such youths will after six months be made to get up and do some form of work for which they will be remunerated. What divides them is the ideological presentation – Labour assumes that good comrades will take the job and go off singing whereas the Tories assume that the young slackers need beating around the head to go and do flower arranging so include the threat of a stick. The Tory option also involves working for the community and indirect remuneration whereas the Labour option includes direct remuneration for something. At this stage what that something is is left to the imagination (and prejudices) of the voter.

The multi-party debate (Tory, Labour, Lib-Dem, SNP, Green, UKIP, Plaid Cymru and possibly DUP and maybe Sinn Fein if they wish to turn up and publicly say nothing for 90 minutes) will end up offering somewhere between 10 and 13 minutes as an average maximum speaking time during each debate, depending on question length, moderator waffle/ intervention and if the Sinn Fein delegate opens their mouth. This might be better managed as a string of back-to-back Party Political Broadcasts, which would be more coherent, better structured, equally partisan and equally open to challenge and explanation.

The reader may by this point be getting some sort of idea as to where this is going, so let’s set out reasons why the debates shouldn’t happen (preferably at all, and if they must it shouldn’t have been left for the “short campaign” after Parliament is dissolved).

They are mostly for the benefit of the broadcasters

The broadcasters will get lots of lovely guaranteed viewing figures. For the commercial ones, this means advertising revenue without the bother and expense of making an actual programme.

Some politicians have sucked up to the broadcasters by saying that the debates are a matter for said broadcasters. This is a curious position, particularly since the electorate rarely vote for the opinions of the broadcasters. It is interesting to take notes as to which politicians think the country is run by the broadcasting companies, and not vote for them.

There is no evidence that voters are encouraged by them

Turnout was actually not much better in 2010 than it was in 2005 (4% up on 2005, 6% up on 2001, 6% down on 1997 and 12% down on 1992).

They give air to inexperienced parties who promise anything

This is a rather small-c-conservative objection (and actually a large-C-Conservative objection too) justified by Mr Nick Clegg at the last election. Having promised voting reform, House of Lords reform and abolition of student loans he is inclined to present an unsuccessful figure. (He has actually probably been rather good behind the scenes and the fact that his voting referendum fell wasn’t his fault except insofar as nobody liked him and he was identified with it.) But allowing Nigel Farage to wander onto a stage and essentially announce that if we ban immigration then immigration figures will reduce does not improve the tone of the debate – it leaves parties with balanced plans (or interesting reasons for having no plans) spending their valuable 11 minutes explaining (unfortunately usually badly and occasionally with summaries involving inferred suggestions at accusing Farage of bigotry) why banning immigration might not be a good idea.

Unless the election is particularly clear-cut, few of the leaders’ opinions will matter

All the small party leaders are trying to set up red lines that they will stick to in coalition negotiations. Unfortunately, as 2010 showed – backed up by the broadcasts for the No to AV campaign – hurried coalition negotiations and subsequent ongoing horsetrading will result in most of these red lines (like the end of student loans) quietly (or very obviously) disappearing. As a result, knowing what a bunch of people think a month before they get persuaded that they think something else isn’t terribly relevant.

They concentrate interest on the debates

Cameron’s way of putting this is that they “sucked the life out of the campaign” in 2010. Certainly it is harder to have a debate with actual people when you’re going to be on BBC1 that evening having some sort of debate with fellow politicians.

They distract from hustings, which are of greater constitutional value

Election debates are about big nationwide concerns. The Cornish Assembly might just qualify. Any complaints about hospital provision in Whitby will only come in the form of references to this bloke called Joe that one of the party leaders briefly met in Whitby and who complained about hospital provision.

In Whitby, possibly clashing with the leaders’ debates, will be a series of constituency hustings – smaller versions of the debates in libraries and community halls where the candidates for the seat will sit down and take questions from any voters who turn out to ask them things.

Hustings are interesting for when keen voters get to share a room with 190 Communist supporters and enjoy an evening of the Tory being muttered at and the Communist being supported (something that will be missing from the leaders’ debates, as the Communists aren’t invited) before discovering that subsequently all 190 Communists turned out and voted for their party – but nobody else did.

They also cover local concerns – like local hospital provision, like local jobs, like if the 50,000 (or however many) new houses are all going to be built on the local park, like if the new school will be built there ditto, like local buses and trains and bypasses, and like what’s going to happen to the derelict Tesco on the High Street. None of these will be mentioned at the leaders’ debates (at least, not beyond another anecdote from Sid from Kidderminster who can’t get to the High Street because the bus has gone but it doesn’t matter because Tesco has too).

So many major policies are done as matters of conscience now – marriage, Europe, wars, trunk railways – that the views of the local MP are if anything more relevant than the views of the party leader. This is particularly relevant with UKIP and the Greens, which seem to have problems maintaining party lines and consequently will probably be offering different policies in each constituency. The views of the Green leader may be disagreeable, but the local candidate may actually seem good for the area and will either defect or simply disagree with their leader until the next election.

Also, if people want individualistic MPs or politicians who aren’t all the same as each other a good place to start is to go to hustings and listen out for candidates who have real opinions. (People who aren’t sure if they want their politicians to be totally real people may wish to draw the line at candidates who openly disagree with their party leadership on minor points of strategy.) Voting based on the television debates encourages – indeed, requires – the local MPs to be a particularly gullible flock of sheep who agree to fulfil all the stupid promises their leader made up on the hoof while under pressure on television.

But if people watch leaders’ debates rather than going to the hustings, they’ll miss all of this. Which means they’ll also be surprised if their MP signs up to a coalition agreement that the party leader seems to be dead against but the MP actually supported all the contents of during the hustings.

They can actually distance people from politics.

We have weekly leaders’ debates in this country (which the USA doesn’t have). They’re called Prime Minister’s Questions. There was a rather ironic one recently where the Leader of the Opposition spent his questions demanding that the Prime Minister debate with him.

There is a school of thought, led by the Speaker of the House of Commons, that the behaviour at these debates puts people off politics. It does certainly make politics something which happens on television, like wars, foreign riots and Coronation Street.

By contrast, politics is actually about the here-and-now, trying to do things that make the economy stronger, the country better off and the people be in a better place than they were at the previous election (however marginally). It needs to be brought directly to people and their immediate concerns. And they need to be able to ask the questions which matter to them, not to Tom in the audience, the show’s producer and the party leader who needs to come out with an answer which leads neatly into their pre-scripted punchline about kitchens.

This is best achieved with face-to-face debates with the voter – hustings, crowd-pleasing speeches in town squares and doorstepping. In 1992 John Major managed the unique achievement of leading his party to victory with over 14,000,000 votes. He didn’t go on television debates. He went out in the street with a megaphone and a soap box.

The Tories should have tried harder to be empty-chaired on these debates. And then their activists could read the TV schedules and go door-knocking during the debates. 15 minutes per doorstep would be more than each of the other parties are getting on the box and more relevant to the voter.

And then see which party does better at getting their point across and wins the election.