The TV companies have played their trump card today. By ganging up together on the main political parties, they’ve been able to draw up a debate schedule that works for all of the networks, whilst probably mollifying the parties enough for them to take part.
For Labour, the key consideration has been that the debates must go ahead in some form. The preferred format was always 3-3-3 (3 debates, 3 leaders, three networks) because that’s what had happened in 2010, and that was seen as the easiest way to ensure the debates went ahead.
For Labour, the TV debates matter, because the Tories are expected to dominate the air war, largely for reasons of funding.
The working expectation in the Labour leadership is that Miliband will perform well in the debates, both because he has many of the attributes (knowledge, intelligence, an even temper) needed to succeed, and because the Tories have managed to lower the bar so far in terms of expectations of the Labour leader that he will surely cross it. The Tories don’t want to see Miliband vs Cameron in the TV debates, because their plan is to paint him as useless and the debates will prove that he isn’t.
So today’s announcement of a plan for TV debates is good news for the Labour Party. It shows that it’s likely there will be agreement on a number of debates, and that Cameron will be forced to face Miliband on a number of occasions in the run up to election day.
The 2-3-4 format announced this morning has many benefits. Each debate will be markedly different, which should maintain interest, and it’s run across a range of broadcasters. If this is the only offer on the table, Labour should take it – the risk of the Tories using negotiations as a way of stalling and evading these debates is real.
But if there is room for manoeuvre, then Labour should suggest the following three changes to the debates in order to improve them:
The Greens: Ok, lets tackle the elephant in the room first. The Green Party have an MP. They have had an MP since 2010. UKIP only got one last week and now they’re being asked to appear in a TV debate. It may be because they’re polling well, but if you look at the polls, the Greens are in a similar ballpark to the Lib Dems. It seems objectively fair to include the Greens in the debates. But it’s also good for Labour to have the Greens in the “big” debate. Now I don’t like the Green Party. I think many of them are high-handed, holier-than-thou enviro-nimbies. The Labour Party’s default presumption has been that having the Greens in the TV debates weakens Labour because our voters might be tempted to vote for them. That’s overly pessimistic – and by taking them on, rather than allowing them to claim they’re excluded, we have a better chance of beating them in places like Brighton and Norwich. But having the Greens in the debates would also address the imbalance of a UKIP-Tory-Lib Dem-Labour debate. That debate has two (and a half) right wing parties in it. The debate would necessarily be pulled to the right – meaning a debate on the terms of the right. By having the Greens in the debate, that risk is reduced.
The debates are in the wrong order: The way the TV companies have presented the schedule it appears that the TV debates would gradually get larger over time. That’s stupid. The debates should start with the largest number of participants, and reduce in size until it’s the two people who have a chance of being Prime Minister in the final debate. That means the debates are coming toward a focussed end, rather than becoming increasingly noisy, random and messy. By all means include smaller parties, but lets have the final debate – close to polling day – between Miliband and Cameron, as a Prime Ministerial decider.
We need an online debate: Three debates seems like a sensible number, but why do they all have to be on TV? People increasingly get their news online – especially young people – whilst a triumvirate of debates on terrestrial TV simply plays to a similar audience time and time again. Why not host a debate on Youtube (for example), built around participation, interaction and genuine online debate. TV debates are great, but if we’re looking to the future, online debates are a must.
The Labour Party wants the debates to happen, rightly. But, to paraphrase Ed Miliband – Britain deserves better debates than this.