Politics is abstract, and politics is confusing. We are bombarded daily by political statements from politicians. The views to which we are constantly subjected are usually loose, intangible, and transient. People – especially young people – complain that they do not know what politicians and the parties they represent stand for. The more we are pandered to by precisely formulated and isolated statements, the more alienated we feel. In short, politicians try to appear to be everything for everybody, and consequently don’t really become anything for anyone.
Such is the nature of our political system that politicians often need to be slippery. But this has led many of us to feel alienated. The Office for National Statistics reports that 42 per cent of young people have no interest in politics. What is needed is a definite yet accessible way to solidify in our minds who and what our politicians are, so that we can begin to understand them, accept them, and, if necessary, reject them. By themselves, they can be who they want to be. But brought together, battle lines are drawn, contrasts are made; our politicians become defined for who they are.
TV debates are the best way of doing this. Very rarely do we see the leaders of the parties go head to head and tackle an issue. The jeering and point-scoring of Prime Minister’s Questions doesn’t come close; watch any two from this Parliament and the pattern that emerges is one of pedestrianised questions and answers, interspersed with some animated name calling. Such debates are unfocused and often irrelevant to the concerns of the voting public.
Those in powerful positions are forced to define themselves when brought together with their opponents. In the same way, politicians of minor political standing, but growing political influence, such as the Greens, are also challenged. They have the opportunity to debate on equal terms with those of a more established standing and get to prove their worth where they would have previously been unable. The Green Party has not been heard properly in the political forum, yet is gaining traction, especially with the young demographic. Thanks to the recent changes to the TV debates, the Greens will be joining the fray. The voices of their leaders will finally be heard in a fair and proper setting. Let’s see them debate their ideas and prove their worth. Will David beat Goliath, or is David not as cunning as we think he is? TV debates provide us with the opportunity to find out.
I am not arguing that TV debates are the perfect answer to our fraught political system. They are by no means conducive to political involvement and will not revitalise our political system overnight. No one thing can completely cure the political malaise from which we seem to be suffering, but refusing to do this one thing because it is not enough is better than doing nothing at all. We have had to drag some politicians to agree to the current format, and we should keep on pressuring them to do the things some of them are obviously reluctant to do. Their reluctance is a good sign: it means that they fear their proposals being transparently presented to the public.
TV debates provide a valuable forum and opportunity to force our politicians to be forthright and consistent in their positions. Keeping the debates is a step towards pressuring politicians to be clearer and more accountable. In a confusing and abstracted political world, who could possibly argue with that?
I do not attempt to deny for one moment that political discourse, debate, and discussion are essential ingredients of a democratic society. Yet the proposed re-run of the 2010 party leader debates is not the best recipe for this. Nor is it a particularly good way for voters to decide how to cast their vote.
Ostensibly, the 2010 televised debates were a roaring success. Yet the forthcoming General Election promises to be quite different to the last. In particular, there are many more parties attempting to challenge the hegemony of Labour and the Conservatives. Since the war, it has been only the Liberal Party and, since their 1988 merger, the Liberal Democrats who have had the de facto capability to threaten the ascendancy of the two main parties. Now the Lib Dems have been joined, even usurped, by UKIP and the Greens. The SNP and Plaid Cymru are regionally based movements and do not field candidates across the UK, but they too should not be forgotten. Indeed, the SNP may find itself in coalition government with Labour should the electorate not give a clear mandate for either of the two largest parties to rule alone.
The existence of so many parties poses a problem for the broadcasters. It is almost impossible to draw a fair line between parties which are important enough to be included in the televised debates and parties which are of insufficient importance. Indeed, there has been considerable controversy regarding the selection of party leaders to take part.
The present plan it to include seven of the UK’s political parties in at least one of the proposed instalments. This will hardly be conducive to a constructive debate. Debates are best held between two opposing sides, not seven. The proposed format is likely to lead to point-scoring rhetoric and pie-in-the-sky promises rather than mature and informed debate. Voters, many of whom are already disillusioned with politics, will struggle to make sense of the seven different opinions being offered on every issue.
There is also a danger that TV debates will once again undermine the remainder of the election campaign. In 2010, the attention of voters and political commentators focused on the oratory skills of each of the party leaders above anything else. The rest of the election campaign, such as the canvassing carried out by committed local politicians, was rendered somewhat meaningless.
Indeed, having televised party leader debates just does not fit squarely with the nature of the democracy that we have here in the UK. In the US, where there is a two-party race for the presidency, the adversarial style of a televised debate between two candidates has been popular and constructive. Yet in the UK, with a voting system which requires citizens to vote for a candidate standing for election in their constituency, rather than for a Prime Minister, debates between party leaders are somehow less relevant. Voters may like a party leader, but dislike the party’s candidate for election in their constituency. The inherent contradiction between having party leader debates and having the electoral system that we do divorces us from having a direct say in who the Prime Minister will be.
Of course we need to ensure that voters are adequately engaged with politics and have sufficient access to information regarding policy on both a national and local level. A few short televised debates between point-scoring party leaders, however, cannot achieve this.