As David Cameron submitted his “final offer” to broadcasters on TV debates yesterday, other party leaders were quick to label him a coward, and rightly so.
But David Cameron and the Conservative Party aren’t only running scared, they are also acting in an entirely un-statesmanlike manner. I hate to agree with UKIP, but their spokesperson was right when he asked, “After praising what a good thing debates were for democracy as recently as 2014, why is David Cameron now acting chicken and running as far away from them as possible?”
The thing is, unless you’re particularly engaged with politics, general elections in this country are quite mundane. News channels will show endless reels of politicians with tired smiles shaking hands with local supporters, workmen and pub landlords, newspapers will carry analyses on the most minute of policy differences, and in the process we will all be thoroughly bored.
The TV debates were a way of reinvigorating popular engagement with politics. If the people can directly question the politicians, and if you can watch the different leaders battle it out on stage, then politics becomes more interesting and people will care more.
What is of even greater importance is that the TV debates are live. No matter how well you script your performance (think Nick Clegg in 2010), if you get a tricky question you’re going to have to answer it, or try to. And the relatively bare production of the debates will expose those politicians that try to wriggle out and leave questions unanswered.
The TV debates are about engaging a population that is plagued with apathy about politics. So if politicians aren’t going to think big and start talking about real changes and visions of the future on their own, let us force them to do so together, live, and on a national stage. That way we can challenge them at least in our own minds, or challenge our perceptions so we can make a better decision at the ballot box.
When David Cameron thinks he has the right to control the format, number and timing of TV debates, we have to question how much he cares about our democracy, about the people he supposedly represents.
The Conservatives I think know full well that opening up the debate to seven parties will dilute its effectiveness. On each question posed, every party leader will want to get their opinion across. But in doing so, the likelihood is it will descend into an uncontrollable and incomprehensible slurry of soundbites. It’s an outrage that any party would allow this to happen, let alone that they would try to make it happen.
Cowardice is one thing. If Cameron feels he cannot debate against Clegg, Miliband, Farage and the other party leaders, I have no sympathy. It is his job after all. But arrogance and an interference with democratic process is quite another.
That a governing party would have the nerve to try and dictate the parameters of debate in the run up to the most significant aspect of democratic engagement for the general public is appalling. The right to choose our MPs and hence our government only comes about once every five years. The least we deserve by them in the meantime is full and free access to information about their views and plans for our country.
I moaned when broadcasters excluded the Green Party and Cameron was right to demand their inclusion. But this was based on the assumption that we would not sacrifice close scrutiny of the major leaders who could end up controlling our government. One 90 minute broadcast with seven parties is not going to be a fruitful means of popular engagement in the run up to the election (especially when it occurs before electoral race even officially begins).
David Cameron’s offer to the broadcasters is cowardly, yes. But moreover it is unfaithful to the public he represents and the manner in which he laid out a “final offer” is appalling. I hope the broadcasters don’t back down, and if he won’t do a U-turn I hope he is ‘empty chaired’. We should be outraged.