Are The Prime Ministerial Debates Worth This Much Trouble?


It seemed that as soon as the clock had ticked over to midnight on the 1st of January that we were plunged immediately into the election cycle for 2015.

In fact, on January 2nd the Conservatives unveiled their first election poster. The political posturing that comes with the early stages of a general election campaign has now mostly come to focus on the debates between party leaders, which proved to be something of a success during the 2010 campaign. However, the political landscape has changed significantly since then, with UKIP triumphing in last year’s European election and the Green party’s membership surging to over 26,000 in recent months. Add into this the huge rise in support received by the Scottish National Party during, and immediately after, the independence referendum campaign. It’s clear that the British political landscape is significantly more crowded than at any point in recent history.

At first, the plan was for three debates, one on Channel 4 and Sky featuring just David Cameron and Ed Miliband, followed by two more, on the BBC and ITV respectively, which would have also included Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage. Firstly, the Liberal Democrats objected to being excluded from the first debate since they are a part of government, then David Cameron threatened to withdraw from the debates entirely unless the Green Party were included. Additionally, the SNP argued for their inclusion given the latest polling is predicting they may all but obliterate the Labour vote in Scotland. In reaction, the broadcasters panicked and announced yesterday, that whilst the Miliband v. Cameron debate will remain, the other two debates will be between the leaders of seven parties: The Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, UKIP, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru. This still hasn’t been enough to stop all criticism, on account of the fact it doesn’t include the Democratic Unionist Party, which is fourth largest parliamentary party.

It is, overall, something of a fudge, because the broadcasters are beyond eager to put the debates on air (quite reasonably, given the boost it gives their viewing figures). But the idea of seven politicians all trying to push their separate agendas seems, to me at least, a recipe for disaster, which leads to the question: Is it worth it at all?

Do we really want to end up with American style election campaigns?
Do we really want to end up with American style election campaigns? (Photo Credit: BBC)

The debates are arguably just a continuation of the ‘Americanisation’ of British politics. Especially the idea of a head-to-head between Cameron and Miliband – pitching the candidates like they are vying for a Presidential role. It’s simply a continuation of the cult of personality in British politics started by Margaret Thatcher and continued by Tony Blair, a move towards associating entirely with party leaders and not with a party and it’s policies. Scrapping the debates altogether would be a move back to 20th century British politics where people voted for an ideology not an individual.

The debates were, however, undeniably popular. Given that the British political system is currently undergoing something of an apathy crisis, with the public largely no longer trusting politicians, anything that may increase public interest in politics shouldn’t be dismissed. Therefore, it appears the debates are here to stay, in which case I’d be proposing a simpler solution than having seven talking heads on stage:

Debate 1: Cameron v. Miliband

Debate 2: Cameron, Miliband and Clegg

Debate 3: Cameron, Miliband, Clegg, Nigel Farage and Natalie Bennett

Debate 4: Regionally broadcast debates between the leaders of the regional branches of the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties along with their counterparts in regional parties (For example: Ruth Davidson, Jim Murphy, Willie Rennie and Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland).

This solution seems like a reasonable compromise: it allows for a head-to-head between the two real Prime Ministerial candidates; the Liberal Democrats are allowed to defend their record in government; UKIP and the Greens are given fair representation and the nationalist parties are able to put forth their case in the regions in which they will actually have an impact.

This may not be perfect, no solution to a political problem ever is, but it seems to be the most natural way to prevent having to organise a reasonable and rational debate between seven people. Given the debates are likely here to stay –  regardless of objections – it would seem conducive to actually design a detailed strategy, rather than try to find the simplest way of pleasing all the political parties. Since the debates are supposed to be informing voters, having them descend into a seven-way shouting match may only serve to further alienate the electorate.


2nd Year Modern History and Politics student. Moans a lot about politics, unlikely to actually do anything about it. Direct complaints towards @FSGLoveman on Twitter.

Discussion2 Comments

  1. avatar

    I struggle to see the justification for debate two – it affords Clegg a legitimacy which, as head of a party polling over the last two weeks an average of around 7.5%, he no longer has. Remove that, and I think you’re on to a winner. Too many debates, or too many people in a given debate, will simply switch off the public

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