Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Are debates too presidential?

One of the epithets British politicians toss at each other is that the other is acting "too presidential." It's a reference to the direct election of the US president and the indirect election of the British head of government. For a politician to appear to be out grubbing for votes among the grassroots is not very British. That's one of the reasons why televised debates at election time first happened in Britain 50 years after they happened in the USA. There are other reasons too.

U.S.-style TV debates are making a mess of Britain’s elections
Clad in a bright yellow chicken costume, British Prime Minister David Cameron appears on the front page of the Daily Mirror, a left-leaning British newspaper, on Friday under the headline: “Why are you such a chicken, Mr. Cameron?”

The mock photo echoes the charge that many of Cameron’s rivals have been making this week that the prime minister is running from TV debates…

American-style TV debates… were popular [in 2010], with some 22 million tuning in over the course of three debates.

But this time, the televised debates are shrouded in controversy, and it’s unclear whether they will actually happen before the general election May 7, which polls suggest is one of the closest in a generation…

The broadcasters, including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky News, insisted on Friday that they intend to press ahead with three debates — currently scheduled for April 2, 16 and 30 — and urged Cameron to reconsider his “final offer” to appear in only one debate…

Earlier in the week, Cameron’s office said that he would take part in only one debate with at least seven party leaders, reflecting the fragmentation of the political landscape. Support for smaller parties has surged, with current polls suggesting that they could win up to 30 percent of the vote.

Under Britain’s parliamentary system, Britons don’t vote directly for the person who becomes prime minister. Before the TV debates were introduced here in 2010, critics said they were too American, too presidential, too much about the personalities of the leaders and not enough about the policies of the parties.

Cameron was no such critic. When he was in opposition, he repeatedly goaded then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown to a TV debate…

Today, Cameron, as prime minister, is receiving the same kind of criticism he once gleefully doled out in opposition…

Last fall, the broadcasters proposed a four-way debate with the leaders of the Conservatives, Labor, Liberal Democrats and UKIP. Cameron argued that it wasn’t fair to include a smaller party like UKIP, which is expected to peel votes away from his Conservative Party, if the Green Party was not included. The left-leaning Greens are likely to pull votes from Labor, which may be another reason he wanted them included…

Cameron is an astute debater, so why is he shying away from the debates this time?

Analysts say he decided there is little for him to gain… [W]ith Miliband’s personal ratings being so poor, even a modest performance from him could dispel the idea that he’s not up for the job. The race is nail-bitingly close, and it seemed Cameron was willing to endure a few days of bad headlines as long as Miliband’s unpopular image remained intact.

But with the broadcasters not budging, the gamble could backfire if voters judge him to be cowardly and cheating the electorate of three debates with their prime minister…

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