The general election debate dance used to be simple. The leader of whichever of the Conservative or Labour partes was trailing in the polls demanded one, then the one who was in the lead hemmed, hawed and put so many conditions in the way of having one that they could never be accused of turning it down, but guaranteed that it would never happen. The leaders of the third and other parties presumably had opinions on this, but as the debates were never a serious proposition, they didn’t get aired, unless their inclusion or not was one of the roadblocks thrown in the way it happened.
Then in 2010, the stars aligned in just the right way and we had our three debates between the leaders of the three leading parties. Understandably, this has created an expectation that they’ll happen again, which would set us off on an even more complicated path of negotiation even without the changes that have happened in politics over the last few years.
In that context, the initial proposal for the debates – a debate with Cameron and Miliband, then a debate with Cameron, Miliband and Clegg, and finally one with Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Farage – would make sense as a wrecking proposal from someone who didn’t really want a debate. It’s bizarrely convoluted, it ignores the Greens, it means each debate is going to end up covering the same ground as the new inclusion in the later debates will want to revisit that and it doesn’t appear to satisfy anyone. Job done, except this came from the broadcasters, not a politician, and I’ve no idea how they managed to come up with such a dog’s breakfast of a proposal.
The key point here is that the broadcasters are in a position of strength as the public will be expecting debates this time, so they’ve got the ‘we’re going ahead with this format, with or without you’ card to play. The public would accept an empty chair, if they think the broadcasters have been fair and it looks like someone being petulant. As it is, this proposed system just guarantees Cameron and Miliband having the same discussion for three weeks, with extra guests being invited to interject on the reruns.
The way I see it, there are five parties that pass the credibility test for being included in a UK-wide debate: they’ve all had MPs and MEPs elected, polls suggest they will get MPs elected at the next election and they’re standing in a majority of the seats at the election. (To the best of my knowledge, no party is intending to stand in all of them) That means debates between the leaders of the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Greens, and the formula should be on the same lines as last time: one on the economy, one on foreign affairs and one on domestic issues. The one thing I would agree with David Cameron on is that because of fixed term parliaments we now know exactly when the election will be, they could be spaced out over a few months before, not all crammed into the campaign. I’d also suggest that similar debates with similar criteria for entry should occur in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and that the broadcasters should commit to showing these across the UK on free-to-air channels.
The debates worked last time because they were simple and everyone could understand what they were about and why the leaders were there. The political system now isn’t quite as simple, but that doesn’t mean we need to add an extra level of complexity into the debates. Three debates, each on a theme, with five leaders at each is the best way of achieving that this time around.