It’s time we stopped arguing about the TV debates – and guaranteed real choice for voters

Sabine McGinley,

Posted on the 19th November 2019

Tonight’s first round of television debates has been mired in controversy. Not over policies – but the format, with the SNP and Lib Dems mounting an unsuccessful legal challenge to being excluded.

It’s not necessarily who will but who won’t be taking part in these televised debates that has hit the headlines. Of the debates confirmed so far some exclude the leaders of smaller parties such as the Greens and the Brexit Party despite including the Liberal Democrats and the SNP whilst two will only be between Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and the Conservatives’ Boris Johnson.

Nicola Sturgeon told BBC Breakfast that excluding her “would be not just wrong democratically but letting down voters.” Plaid Cymru are also rightfully concerned that the multi-party, multi-national nature of the UK may not be reflected on people’s screens, while the Lib Dems believe it is unacceptable that an anti-Brexit voice will not be heard in the Labour-Tory head-to-head.

At the heart of these conversations is a battle over the party system, which has been blown wide open in recent years as voters ‘shop around’ more than ever. Old party allegiances are fading: but so much of our political system and debate often fails to reflect that.

There is also disagreement over what the debates are for, with Sir Keir Starmer arguing that “we have to have a debate between the only two people who are capable of, or likely to become, Prime Minister”. Similarly, the Conservatives would prefer a one-on-one debate with more focus on the two parties who are most likely to form a government. It jars with the view that the debates should represent the political diversity of Britain more generally.

The debates are set to take place on BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky News. However, many believe that the whole legitimacy of these contests will be undermined if other leaders of the main political parties aren’t formally represented. Hence legal threats and rows over ‘empty chairing’, or the debates being ‘held to ransom’ by political party leaders. Shambolic, in sum.

It reflects a wider failure of the political system to move on from a binary two-party system. Despite people wanting to cast their vote for a wider range of parties and candidates, often shifting at each election, Westminster has failed again and again to represent this: an inevitable consequence under the First-Past-the-Post voting system.

Instead of having these rows each election, we have to recognise that politics has changed hugely this past decade – with voters wanting more choice and a stronger voice in elections.

As Darren Hughes wrote on Wednesday: “So much of our politics feels broken because it happens behind closed doors, rather than with voters’ input. It’s time for citizens’ to shape a proper structure for TV debates that will last, and bring these perpetual ‘empty chairing’ rows to an end.”

With a new Speaker in the Commons, perhaps they could establish a ‘Debates Commission’, to ensure elections are not a plaything of parties but a tool for voters to learn, engage and hold leaders to account during a campaign.

Sabine McGinley is a Placement Student with the Electoral Reform Society from the Unversity of Nottingham.

Read our 2017 report on the debates, Debating the TV Debates.

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