NEW POLL: should we have a televised leaders’ debate in the UK?

by Stephen Tall on October 17, 2008

It’s not just the US electorate which has closely followed the three Presidential (and one vice-presidential) debates – much of the British political class has also been transfixed by the sheer theatre and high stakes involved in these face-offs.

In reality, all four debates have perhaps disappointed those expecting, or hoping for, ‘game-changing’ fireworks or gaffes from any of the candidates. Though as Martin Kettle put it in today’s Guardian:

Too many observers wait for someone to say something either utterly brilliant or staggeringly stupid. But that’s not what the debates are about. The real point of the debates is that they are opportunities to test the presidential timber of the candidate the viewers are probably going to vote for anyway.

I think this underestimates the role of the debates as soap boxes for the candidates; I’ve learned a fair amount about the policies of both Obama-Biden and McCain-Palin simply by listening to what they have to say, and that must surely be true of voters in the US, also, who will make up their minds in the process.

But enough of the US, here’s LDV’s new poll question: is it now time for the UK to introduce televised debates between the major party leaders prior to a general election? Your options are:

Yes, it is
No, it is not
Don’t know

The perennial argument agin doing so is that the British do not operate a presidential system. Which is, de facto, true, but strikes me as rather beside the point: the leaders are elected spokespersons for their parties, so it doesn’t seem too radical to suggest they might actually have a role in presenting and defending their policies in a debate with their rivals.

Well, that’s my view, what’s yours?

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I agree with the concept, but believe it should be expanded.

Not just leader’s debates, but also debates between the key ministers.

We can have the chancellor, health, education, defense, foreign and home secretaries debate and set out their stall, in separate televised debates spread over the course of the campaign with the leaders debate being the climax the night before.

This neatly sidesteps the problem of not being a presidential system and emphasises the cabinet system and introduces the key ministers.

I know this is all wishful thinking, and no channel would agree to give up so much time, but it would be really useful to help frame the policies and the alternatives of the parties

by Chris on October 17, 2008 at 7:01 pm. Reply #

No. It doesn’t bear any correlation to how they are likely to perform: often there are well-packaged stuffed shirts, or those not quite so presentational who are in fact better candidates.

by asquith on October 17, 2008 at 7:01 pm. Reply #

At the last election, there was a Question Time Special where each of the main party leaders was individually grilled by Mr Dimbleby and the audience for about half an hour each. The main difference between this and the American style debates is that they don’t appear on stage at the same time. While this difference is important, it completely negates the “not a presidential system” argument. I also think that it negates Asquith’s point too (as salient as it is).

So it would seem that the argument is simply about the format of that programme. Having the party leaders on stage at the same time should be a livlier debate, so I vote yes. Whether Mr Clegg would get invited is another question…

by Different Duncan on October 17, 2008 at 8:00 pm. Reply #

Well Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France,etc,etc seem to have these debates and the sky doesn’t fall in there…why not give it a go, as long as it’s not Fiona Bruce or Huw Edwards doing the hosting!

by jim on October 18, 2008 at 2:22 pm. Reply #

A large majority of respondents think there should be televised debates, which means they take the opposite view to mine 🙂

by asquith on October 18, 2008 at 9:11 pm. Reply #

Theory states that no British government has ever been elected by the people; we elect a local representative to present our position in Parliament.

Practise demonstrates that any American President would give their hind teeth for the amount of power within their own country that the effective ‘elected dictator’ of the British Prime Minister has.

Effectively, rather than the American electoral college of 538 members chosen out of 50 states, we have a 650 member electoral college, choosing someone with vastly more power than any President, grafted on top of the theory, which on some level does continue to hold sway.

In short, we elect a bloody mess, and trying to figure out how many of the people voted on what grounds, be it for a person to be PM, a party to form the government, a party to represent them, a local campaigner to represent them, etc, is the preserve of pollsters. What we can do is try to get as much information out there as possible. The Canadian Prime Minister has to fight their way through two debates, one in English, one in French, before election. The Swedes have televised debates. The Germans have televised debates. None of these are directly electing their heads of government, but in all of them it is recognised and accepted that the people should have a chance to see their future leader defend their ideas in public against the alternatives.

So it’s probably fairly obvious I voted ‘yes’. Although I did toy briefly with voting ‘no’, because this isn’t the time to start it, twenty years ago or more was the time to start it 😉

by Greg L on October 19, 2008 at 12:10 am. Reply #

I set up a facebook group dedicated to this very idea a few weeks ago. Do join and spread the news:
‘Presidential-Style Debates in the UK’

by Simon on October 19, 2008 at 9:06 am. Reply #

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