Is it time for a televised leaders’ debate?

by Stephen Tall on September 4, 2007

Yesterday Gordon Brown faced repeated media questioning asking if he would agree to take part in the UK’s first televised debate between the leaders of the three main political parties. Mr Brown rejected the idea.

Adam Boulton’s blog rehearses the familiar arguments:

Brown didn’t even entertain the idea of debate. Instead he used the same old excuses. It’s not the British Way. A General Election is not a presidential contest, since voters are choosing between parties not directly electing a leader. British party leaders debate regularly in parliament. All these arguments are reasonable but not, I believe overwhelming. Isn’t precedent made to be broken?

British voters may not be directly electing a President but they are choosing between parties to form a government. Those parties have elected leaders who are presenting themselves a potential Prime Ministers. Nobody would deny that who is going to be Prime Minister is still a central issue. …

But the strongest reason for TV debates is democratic. Large numbers of people watch television debates at Election time and that, surely, gets the public involved: just what the Prime Minister and other politicians always say they want. In America 62.5 million people watched the first Bush Kerry debate in 2004. In France 20 million watched Sarkozy and Royal square up this year, at the subsequent election turnout was over 80%. In Germany, which has a parliamentary system like ours, Chancellor debates are the key fixtures of the campaign.

If the Prime Minister wants new politics and engaged voters, he’s just turned down a big chance to do something about it.

Today both Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell and Tory leader David Cameron have called on the Prime Minister to back down, and agree to a televised debate. Ming said that Prime Minister’s refusal to engage in a debate showed “Gordon Brown’s new politics is skin deep.”