General election 2015: broadcasters propose 2-3-4 leaders’ debates formula

by Stephen Tall on October 13, 2014

Nick Clegg in TV leaders debate, 2010The BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4 have announced their preferred plans to hold three debates during the 2015 general election campaign. The BBC reports:

One would involve a head-to-head debate between just the Conservative and Labour leaders, and another would include the Liberal Democrat leader. The other debate would involve all three leaders plus Mr Farage. The broadcasters said the proposed formats reflected “changes in the political landscape” since the three prime ministerial debates during the 2010 general election, which featured Conservative Mr Cameron, Labour’s Gordon Brown and Lib Dem Mr Clegg. … The broadcasters have written to the party leaders to invite them to take part. The suggested schedule is for debates on 2, 16 and 30 April, ahead of the election on 7 May.

Here’s how the Lib Dems have responded to the proposal:

“The Liberal Democrats have long argued that the debates last time round were of huge benefit to our democratic process and engaged millions of voters. The Liberal Democrats therefore welcome the fact that the broadcasters are seeking to make progress to ensure that the debates happen again in 2015. The Liberal Democrats, like the Labour Party, have publicly said that we would be prepared to sign up to the same 3-3-3 system we had in 2010. We do not accept the proposal that the Liberal Democrats, as a party of government, should be prevented from defending our record in one of the TV debates. That is the case we will make strongly in the negotiations that will now take place and we urge the other parties to join us around the negotiating table without excuse or delay.”

Three quick points:

1) The controversial bit here is the idea there should be a head-to-head between David Cameron and Ed Miliband as the leaders most likely to become Prime Minister. Had it been proposed in 2010 it might have been seen as fair enough. Yes, I know we have a parliamentary system not a presidential one; but in reality the distinction has become blurred. However, we’re not now in 2010. We’re in 2015, after what will have been a full parliament of coalition government with a Deputy Prime Minister from another party. To exclude Nick Clegg from a debate – and by so doing give him no right of reply to defend the Lib Dems’ actions in government – is clearly unfair, certainly during a campaign period. The party will contest him being excluded and they’ll be right to do so.

2) The inclusion of Ukip’s Nigel Farage is inevitable and right. His party came first in a national election (the Euros in May), have performed strongly in two years’ local elections, are ahead of the Lib Dems in most opinion polls, and have now elected their first MP. However, fairness would then suggest the Greens – a national party of longer standing with an elected MP – should also be included (even if it’s to the Lib Dems’ and probably Labour’s advantage if they’re not).

3) The timing of the debates – clustered within the month-long campaign – is disappointing. David Cameron was right to point out the three debates dominated the campaign in 2010 and sucked the life out of it. Far better, in this era of fixed-term parliaments when we know exactly the date of the next election, to space them out. That said, I’d expect some lessening of their importance this time around (in fact it’s arguable they made little difference to the actual result last time, though ‘Cleggmania’ clearly had a huge impact on the campaign).

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.