Why it is good the TV debates are likely to be cancelled

David Cameron

A row between broadcasters and the main parties means TV debates are unlikely to go ahead. This is a good thing for the standard of political debate and for British democracy - the proposals were unworkable.

A report in The Telegraph claims the televised leaders' debates before the general election in May are now likely to be called off.

In the report, senior figures from the main three political parties have criticised broadcasters' “cack-handed” approach, and believe the chances of the TV debates going ahead are slim. This may seem a bad thing, but the TV debate proposals were illogical, ill thought out, and bad for British democracy.

A seven-party debate would have been a logistical nightmare. Each debate would have lasted 90 minutes, and even being generous with the time taken by introductions, questions, and credits, this would’ve given each leader at most 10 minutes of total speaking time, meaning they would only have had a couple of minutes each to talk about important topics like the NHS or the economy.

This would’ve presented an obvious practical problem, how could any chair keep the Prime Minister to only defending his economic record for two minutes? How could you restrict Ed Miliband to only a few seconds on rebutting the Prime Minister’s claims on economic growth or healthcare? In the 2010 TV debates the three party leaders got far longer with three separate 90-minute debates between them on economic affairs, domestic affairs, and foreign affairs.

The TV debates proposals weren’t just a logistical or practical problem, they would also have been bad for the quality of British democracy. With each leader given such a short space of time, it would have become a series of sound bites. This would have only suited the populism of UKIP, the Greens, and the nationalist parties. It would have been easy to make simple assertions, like immigration, greedy bankers, or Westminster being the root cause of all our problems. These arguments may or may not have some merit, but politics is not, and nor should it be, that simple. Very rarely in British politics is a solution black and white, or a clear choice between right and wrong. But that is what the TV debates would have turned into.

Then there was the baffling decision to include two nationalist parties - Plaid Cymru and the SNP. The TV debates were meant to help decide the next government for the whole of the UK. Only 5% of the UK even has the option of voting for Plaid Cymru (the Welsh nationalist party), and, according to a recent Welsh YouGov poll, Plaid Cymru is only the fourth largest party in Wales on 10%, so only 0.5% of the UK electorate are even likely to vote for Plaid. Although the SNP are predicted to do very well in Scotland, the same argument applies - the vast majority of people who would have been watching would not have been able to vote for them. This made no sense, surely a general principle for being part of the TV debates should’ve been that the majority of the electorate had the option of voting for you.

There was also the problem of what the nationalist parties could have legitimately debated. What would have happened when English only issues were debated? Was Nicola Sturgeon going to attack David Cameron’s record on the English NHS? Or were we going to hear Plaid Cymru’s plans for Welsh schools in the upcoming 2016 Welsh Assembly elections? Nationalist parties would have either had to debate the English NHS and English schools, issues that would have never affected anyone that could have voted for them, or they would have had to stand in silence and refuse to comment on English only issues. Both of these options would have been absurd for important national TV debates.

There is a clear public demand for TV debates (YouGov puts it at 70%), and more public debate between our major parties can surely only be good for our democracy. However, the current proposals were unworkable, and would have only further eroded the level of debate in this country. Decisions over TV debates should be given to Ofcom and the Electoral Commission, so there is not a debate about the debates every general election.