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Expert Comment: The Vexed Question of the TV Election Debates

Houses of Parliament Wednesday 14 January 2015

As the discussion about this year's election debates continues, Bill Jones  (Senior Honorary Research Fellow and former professor of politics at Hope) looks at the past, and possible future, of these events.

The first TV election debates took place between Richard Nixon and JF Kennedy in 1960. JFK's Hollywood good looks and charismatic performance were believed to have 'won' him the debate over the pale and sweaty looking Nixon. In the USA such debates are now part of the established political process, watched by millions. Most US viewers would probably have admitted to less than passionate interest but 66m people watched that 1960 debate and 80m the 1980 ones.

In the UK we have been more cautious, delaying such public exhibitions of our political leaders in the run up to general elections, largely because the government of the day did not want to provide a platform from which the opposition parties could attack them. This changed in 2010 when Gordon Brown calculated his position was so weak that TV debates were worth risking. In the event he did not do badly but failed to shine, this honour being won by Nick Clegg whose performance propelled his party to something approaching 30% in the polls, though this rating soon fell back. Senior Conservatives furiously criticised Cameron and Osborne for allowing Clegg to receive such a huge boost during the campaign and argued it had denied Tories the overall victory they would have otherwise have achieved.

This unhappy experience has clearly burned into Tory psyches at the highest level. Andrew Rawnsley, writing in the Observer, reckons Cameron is determined to sabotage any attempt to repeat the debates in the forthcoming 7th May election. He is supported in this position by his wily Australian strategist, Lynton Crosby, his communications director, Craig Oliver and the influential Tory donor and pollster, Lord Ashcroft. The topic was gnawed over in PMQs 14th January with Miliband accusing Cameron of being frightened of facing voters and being accused in turn that he was scared of debating with leftwing rivals, the Greens. Cameron is clearly dodging and weaving to avoid any commitment to debates this time.

He is being accused of cowardice by Ed; being 'frit' by Lord Tebbit and 'chicken' by Nigel Farage. But at the moment he seems happy to take the hit, shrug off such accusations and scupper any agreements. His insistence that he cannot accept any deal which does not include the Greens as well as UKIP, is so obvious a pretext, nobody believes him. The BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel Four are currently wary of offering the other parties a debate which relegates Cameron to an empty chair but fans of the debates hope one of them will do so and break the deadlock. In 2010 Cameron pronounced the debates were 'here to stay' but, having been so badly damaged at that election, Rawnsley is probably right in reckoning the chances of Cameron approving another set of debates this time around are 'between zilch and nada'. Labour must hope that Cameron's rejection of democracy will lose him so many votes he will in any case be denied the victory he so craves.


Bill Jones (Senior Honorary Research Fellow and former professor of politics at Hope).                

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