Labour wants the TV debates, but today’s proposals are flawed

13th October, 2014 12:02 pm

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.

miliband cameron

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.

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  • Steve Stubbs

    Fully agree with the greens issue, if UKIP and the Libdems are there, so should be the Greens. If nothing else, some of their lunatic policies need mass airing so that people can actually see what they are . Printed manifestos are something ignored by the bulk of the population, who rely on the broadcast media and to so lesser extent the printed press.

    I am very uneasy with the “exclude them in case they take our votes” argument being put forward by some. That is undemocratic, smacks of paraoia, and an underlying uncertainty in the their policies.

    • Mark Reilly

      Agreed we should have the Greens in,

      But what we really need is a set of rules, a bit like the PPB rules — the Nationalists are a problem due to the obvious fact they don’t have pan-UK coverage – does this mean we should have Welsh, Scottish & NI debates as well ….English?

      • Steve Stubbs

        BBC are already planning them.

  • The biggest benefit to Labour of having the greens there it will show people what an economically irresponsible party actually looks like and demonstrate how reasonable, mainstream and balanced Labour’s approach to deficit reduction is.

    • treborc1

      Do you think Miliband knows about the greens.

  • RWP

    On the logic of “who has MPs” then why not also invite the SNP, Plaid, the DUP, SDLP, Sylvia Hermon, Alliance and even the abstentionists Sinn Fein? Or are we getting into the mindset of “For the UK, see England” again?

    It would actually be to Labour’s advantage to be the only left of centre party, as there’s a much clearer differentiation between Labour and the rest. The Greens would muddy the waters.

    • FMcGonigal

      Don’t forget Respect also have an MP.

  • markmyword49

    I’m unsure about the effectiveness of these debates on the electorates voting intentions. It may sway a few but not enough to warrant the effort put into them by the parties. The few people I spoke to last time who admitted to voting LibDem or changing from one party to another said that the debates didn’t influence them. It was the feeling in the country and the policies put forward over the months before.

    If a voter is going to cast a protest vote they’ll not be taking any notice of what the main party leaders say. Farage will be able to say whatever he wants and still pick up the vote.

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    How many party leaders would be too many? A “debate” with more than four would be difficult to follow, I think.

    Perhaps it should be done by poll rating or by number of candidates to be fielded: less than a minimum rating or not trying to stand in at least 75% of constituencies?

  • Graeme Hancocks

    I had sort of assumed debates would be 4-3-2. The other way round would be dumb. The greens should be included. Plaid and snp can have equivalent in Wales and Scotland. But there must be a debate – if anyone refuses to participate, there should be an empty chair in their place and audience can make if that what they will.

  • Graeme Hancocks

    I had sort of assumed debates would be 4-3-2. The other way round would be dumb. The greens should be included. Plaid and snp can have equivalent in Wales and Scotland. But there must be a debate – if anyone refuses to participate, there should be an empty chair in their place and audience can make if that what they will.

  • Tom Sanders

    It is Ed himself who has lowered the bar of the public’s expectations of him. In that sense this article is completely backwards.

  • Doug Smith

    “The debates are in the wrong order”

    Not at all.

    The advantage of the proposed order (2,3,4) is that the debates become more interesting as the sequence progresses.

    If the final debate was between only Cameron and Miliband it would be a non-event as, on all consequential matters (i.e. austerity, EU, military intervention etc.), the two main parties agree.

  • swatnan

    Leave it in the hands of the Broadcasters … not the politicians.
    Broadcasters know what makes good entertainment.

  • ChrissieSilverSurfer

    I tweeted when announcement made in media. My suggestion was:-
    Debate 1. All small party leaders i.e. Greens, Ukip (small because of MPs), LibDems (small because on same polling as Greens), Welsh and NI parties.
    Debate 2. Salmond v Cameron v Miliband. (No Farage, he’s not member of any parliament).
    Debate 3. Balls v Osborne
    Debate 4. Cameron v Miliband for next Prime Minister.
    Online debate for YouTube should be last two debates 3 and 4 (new ones or shown at same time as tv ones so social media can interact more fully, especially younger generation)
    This gives a good variety of debates, doesn’t allow broadcasters to set THEIR agenda. Nick Ferrari of LBC thinks debates are about entertainment, entertaining the public, so according to him the political issues are secondary. Source from #Newsnight.

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