It’s time to make TV debates a core part of our elections

Chris Terry, Former Research Officer

Posted on the 5th December 2017

The TV debate has become, in a relatively short period, a major part of British general elections. The expectation that Theresa May would take part, only for her to not, has even been described as a reason for the Conservatives losing their majority in 2017.

Our new study has shown that the BBC’s Question Time Leaders’ special, which both major party leaders took part in, may have swung over a million people’s votes in the General Election – with young people particularly engaged.

TV debates create opportunities for headlines and for winners and losers to emerge, making them usually popular with the campaigns. Yet, there is a vital democratic aspect to TV debates too.

For democracy to properly function it needs strong lines of communication between representative and represented. The age of mass media provides many such tools, but the TV debate is direct: an opportunity for voters to compare and judge political leaders directly and for those same leaders to make a pitch directly to the public. Vitally, debates are a shared event for supporters of all parties, something that is becoming a rarity in the age of hyper targeted campaigns.

And with our volatile voting system, small changes in public opinion can have oversized impacts. ERS research shows the Conservatives could have won an overall majority with just 533 extra votes in the nine most marginal constituencies, while a working majority could have been achieved on just 75 additional votes in the right places. It suggests the Question Time special – among many other factors – could have had an impact on the final outcome.

The Electoral Reform Society is heavily indebted to academics from the University of Leeds for carrying out the study. Prof. Jay G. Blumler, widely-regarded as a founder of modern-day media studies, along with Prof. Stephen Coleman and Dr. Christopher Burchill ran two polls with ComRes before and after the debate. In the first survey respondents were asked what they expected from the Question Time special, in the second they were asked about their impressions.

The respondents were asked whether they thought the leaders would:

  • Put points clearly
  • Provide factual evidence
  • Engage [the respondent] in the debate
  • Understand people like me
  • Provide clear choice

Several things are immediately notable about these results. Firstly, respondents went in broadly expecting TV debates to inform and engage, with around half to expecting factual evidence, 63% expecting to hear clearly put points, and 54% expecting the debate to engage. Fewer (43%) expected to be understood or to see a clear choice.

Broadly speaking we see a pattern amongst those who claimed to have watched all of the debate that they are more positive than those who claim to have watched only some. In part, this is probably down to self-selecting effects (for instance those who were turned off by the debate would literally turn it off), but the exception is on ‘providing a clear choice’, where the Question Time special clearly succeeded.

It is also notable that none of the statements show significant decline, suggesting voters enthusiasm stayed throughout the show.

The results are especially interesting for the youngest age group, with 18-24 year olds 18% more likely than those aged 65+ to say they found the debate engaging, 17% more likely to say leaders put points clearly and 17% more likely to say that the leaders understood people like them.

While women were less likely to show interest in the special beforehand – and fewer claim to have watched it – afterwards they were more likely to say they spoke about the debate with friends and family.

This suggests that debates reached those voters sometimes less represented by usual political channels.

The positive legacy of the BBC’s leadership special shows it’s time to make TV debates a core and established part of our elections in the UK – with party leaders expected to take part and not duck out. And they should be real head-to-head debates, open to meaningful and live challenge from opponents.

Now it’s time for party leaders and broadcasters to learn from voters’ views and make sure the debates are even better next time.

Read the report

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