Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Talking to the people

Televised debates between electoral candidates have been going on in the US for 50 years. The first televised debates in the UK took place in 2010. The results were not to everyone's liking. Thus there is a lot of shuffling and excuse making about arranging debates for the upcoming elections.

David Cameron is smart to duck a TV debate—but not right
Candidate onstage
BRITONS have admired America’s televised presidential debates since the first, between John F. Kennedy and a sweaty Richard Nixon, aired in 1960. But it took them half a century to adopt the practice. Though politicians often flirted with the idea, and broadcasters nagged, the more plausible of the party leaders (typically the incumbent) always vetoed it, sensing that he or she had more to lose than to gain…

Now prime minister, it is Mr Cameron’s turn to dither and bottle. On October 13th a consortium of broadcasters proposed three televised debates ahead of this May’s election… The prime minister prevaricated, then insisted that he would participate only if the Greens, like UKIP a small party that has surged in opinion polls, could take part too. Unpalatable to Labour—because the Greens could split the left-wing vote—and to broadcasters (who do not like to be pushed around) that is as close as Mr Cameron could come to refusing to take part.

On January 14th the leaders of Labour, UKIP and the Liberal Democrats all wrote to Mr Cameron urging him not to “deny the public the opportunity to see their leaders debate” out of self-interest. They encouraged the broadcasters to hold the debates regardless, leaving the prime ministerial podium empty if he continued to stall…

Mr Cameron’s foot-dragging is indeed self-interested. Voters tend to favour him as prime minister over Mr Miliband by a factor of two to one. As Philip Cowley, a political scientist at Nottingham University, has put it, the Labour leader will outperform expectations merely if he “comes on stage and doesn’t soil himself on camera”—let alone if he puts in the strong performance of which he sometimes shows himself capable…

That does not make the prime minister’s objection to excluding the Greens wrong on principle. That left-wing party now routinely polls ahead of the Lib Dems and won its first parliamentary seat four years before UKIP. Natalie Bennett, its leader, deserves a podium.

But nor does it make Mr Cameron’s stalling noble. A well-run televised debate makes people pay attention to the election: the first one in 2010 drew 10 million viewers. They are much better at teasing out politicians’ views than the tedious round of speeches, press conferences and staged visits to supporters’ houses that comprise a debate-free campaign. Britons should have the chance to see their leaders battle—as Mr Cameron argued so forcefully just five years ago.

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Just The Facts! is a concise guide to concepts, terminology, and examples that will appear on May's exam.

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