How to improve the UK’s election debates

Barney Trimble

December 13, 2019

Gordon Brown expressed regret over enabling television debates in the UK. In their recent form, it is easy to see why: they are rarely insightful, overly repetitive, and offer little to the overall campaign. Yet with the right changes in the future, they could provide greater scrutiny, improve the national discourse, and enrich every election to come.

In 1960, an estimated 70 million Americans tuned in to see JFK debate Richard Nixon. Kennedy took the day off from campaigning to prepare for the format. Meanwhile, a sickly Nixon came straight from the campaign trail and refused to wear makeup.

Kennedy was judged to have edged it, but only by those who watched it on TV. Among those listening in on the radio, Nixon was considered the winner.

It is tempting to think that from that moment, the UK would inevitably follow suit. However, it was not until Brown relented in 2010 that they became a fixture in the election cycle.

There were two main reasons for the delay. First, the incumbent has most to lose and little to gain. Theresa May and Boris Johnson have both been criticised for avoiding debates, but future prime ministers will act in the same way.

Secondly, we elect governments, not presidents. Presenting party leaders like US presidential candidates may make simpler TV, but it is misleading and it distorts the idea of what we are voting for.

It also has an effect on the quality of debate. Sir Alec Douglas-Home warned that televised debates would make politics into a “sort of Top of the Pops contest”.

While entertainment has moved on, the principle has been proved correct. We see it during every week in prime minister’s questions: politicians perform for social media clips in lieu of providing scrutiny or answering questions.

This phenomenon is exacerbated by the format that the debates often take. Questions from the audience are rarely precise enough to force developed answers, with follow-up questions either not allowed or poorly utilised. This allows politicians to easily shimmy into their prepared talking points while providing little to no insight.

The proliferation of debate also means leaders fail to attend most of them. Of the six UK-wide TV debates of this election, Johnson participated in three while Corbyn participated in four. A further debate was cancelled after only Jo Swinson agreed to attend, while neither Johnson nor Corbyn participated in Channel 4’s Anything but Brexit debate. Both were happy to appear in a one-on-one format but shunned the wider debates as they offered them little.

By sharing a stage with Labour and the Conservatives, smaller parties are presented as equally viable options for government. Meanwhile, with so many people on stage, each candidate has less time to plead their case.

Therefore, candidates seek to gain attention by landing a blow against one of the big beasts – something that is much more impactful if the party leader is there. The result is parties either not turning up or sending a minor cabinet or shadow cabinet minister.

For solutions, we should look at what has worked. In the election just gone, the undoubted star was Andrew Neil. This is partially because Neil is a skilled and well researched interviewer, but mainly because the one-to-one interview format allowed him to apply proper scrutiny.

He had half an hour to conduct an interview over which he had complete control. The interviews had neither a live audience nor questions submitted from the public – and they were the richer for it.

Producers often feel the need to show that these debates are public affairs, but this is unnecessary and can be a distraction. No election campaign is enriched by arguments over whether a debate audience was biased or if a question was asked by a councillor from another party.

As for the format, a balance should be struck between including multiple parties and focusing on the important parties. A bar of consistent polling of above 5 per cent from approved companies should be enforced for debates in the first four weeks of the campaign, with 10 to 15 per cent required to qualify for those in the final fortnight.

This would disqualify most regional parties, but they would still be eligible for TV debates in their region. The SNP, for instance, would appear on Scottish TV debates, but they would not be eligible for UK-wide debates.

To allow them to stand out, each programme should focus on a single policy area. With major party leaders unwilling to engage, these should be attended by the relevant minister, shadow minister, and party representatives.

Not only would this better represent what the election is about, but it would ensure that these policy areas, and each party’s supporting cast, receive a more in-depth examination.

The final debates would be more general in theme. This would allow for discussion of issues that have arisen during the election and areas that were not covered in the other debates.

Television debates can change elections. That 1960 debate set the stage for Kennedy to edge out Nixon in the popular vote by 0.1 per cent and they have already woven their way into British electoral folklore – think of 2010’s “I agree with Nick” and 2015’s “hell yes, I’m tough enough!”

Let’s see to it that future debates can continue to add to the mythos.


Written by Barney Trimble

Barney Trimble is a researcher for the Initiative for Free Trade.


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