It has recently been announced that three televised debates will be held before the next general election. The debates will feature the leaders of the main parties, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg.
The debates have been allocated to ITV, Sky News and the BBC, but all are to have the same format. The chairs of the debates will be Alistair Stewart, Adam Boulton and David Dimbleby respectively. At this initial stage, it is unclear whether the questions are going to be directed from the audience or the chair. There is also potential for further high-profile debates involving cabinet and shadow cabinet members. The Guardian speculated this might give other presenters an opportunity to chair, such as Newsnight’s Jeremy Paxman, who once famously asked Michael Howard the same question 14 times.
The Conservatives are currently showing a clear lead in the polls, and it would seem they have the most at stake. Labour and especially the Liberal Democrats have the greatest potential for gains in voter support. However, if Cameron impresses the general public, this could bolster his chances of becoming Prime Minister and suppress a late Labour resurgence.
Other parties feel aggrieved at not being including in these UK wide debates. The Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru are threatening to take legal action. They are calling their exclusion from the debates “undemocratic”. Although, separate individual debates for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been arranged, they are not content with merely partaking in these smaller occasions. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Green Party also want to be involved.
The selection criteria for the debates are people who could be Prime Minister. It is this ambiguity that has lead to arguments about Clegg’s involvement. Plaid Cmyru leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones, told BBC Radio 4, “I don’t think anybody including Nick Clegg, thinks that the Lib Dems are likely to form the next government.”
Despite this confrontation there are many positives to these debates. This style of debating has been a success in the USA, with millions watching the Presidential debates between Barack Obama and John McCain. From the American example, we can expect the candidates will have less room to hide, in comparison to the House of Commons environment.
Lord Pearson, UKIP leader, said, “Our presence would provide a real voice for opposition and make the debate far more entertaining.” However, even without these fringe parties contributing, the potential for vigorous debate is still high. This is because Gordon Brown may want to stir up fierce opposition of his own, in an attempt to diminish Cameron’s popularity. The two main parties are often accused of being too similar, but as Brown doesn’t have much to lose he may opt for a more gung-ho approach. Clegg’s presence should also assist in avoiding a stalemate between Brown and Cameron. Having more than three parties runs the risk of the debate becoming diluted.
The establishment of these debates will hopefully enhance the democratic process in the UK. They will certainly have the power to influence large sections of the electorate, as large television audiences are anticipated.