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Election debates turn attention away from policies and onto personalities

April 25, 2017

The televised debates between the party leaders introduced in 2010 and repeated in 2015 could fall by the wayside this time as a result of Theresa May’s refusal to participate.

Is that necessarily a bad thing? If you think elections should focus on policies rather than personalities then perhaps we are better off without them.

I accept that the personality of the person who going to be Prime Minister is not without some importance. However, we already know who that will be and if some political earthquake does occur between now and polling day and Labour emerges as the largest party is there really much we don’t already know about Jeremy Corbyn?

The relentless focus on party leaders – of which the TV debates have become a significant element – also shifts the culture of our politics further towards a presidential system and away from the Parliamentary system we are meant to cherish. This relentless focus on one person in each party leaves too much undisturbed in the policy undergrowth. As we are living in an age when policy matters more than usual it needs to be vigorously explored. The TV debates have never done that effectively.

The first set of debates in 2010 were interesting, partially because of their novelty and partially because they put the three main party leaders on an equal footing but they didn’t really help the electorate understand the policies the parties were likely to pursue once in government. There was a perception at the time that they helped Nick Clegg, the least well-known of the three, although people seem to forget the Lib Dems lost seats at that election. They still emerged as a large enough force to form a coalition with the Tories but were their policy objectives in a hung Parliament ever exposed in the TV debates? Not to my recollection.

By the time we got to 2015 the format had fragmented and just about everyone had successfully grabbed a lectern in the studio with seven leaders taking part in the main debate, some themselves not even contesting seats in the election. Other debates went ahead without David Cameron and some were reduced to solo appearances. It was highly unsatisfactory.

It was hard to escape the feeling that they had turned into a circus, carefully managed and done more for the benefit of TV ratings than voter enlightenment. With the huge army of spin doctors trying desperately to put their gloss on their leaders’ performances we moved even further away from focusing on people who were actually standing for Parliament. That isn’t healthy.

I won’t be sad to see them disappear and really hope that the TV companies don’t try to go ahead with a debate among opposition leaders with an empty chair for May, the rather childish suggestion of Nicola Sturgeon and others.

I don’t blame the opposition for trying to make some capital out of May’s refusal to take part but she may be doing the whole electoral process a big favour with her stance.

From → Politics

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