BBC’s Question Time Special influenced third of viewers’ votes in election, finds study

Posted on the 4th December 2017

Research and polling for the Electoral Reform Society also shows young people’s interest in politics matched older voters’ this June, with ‘surge’ in youth engagement

The BBC’s Question Time Leaders’ special may have swung over a million people’s votes in the General Election – with young people particularly influenced – according to the first in-depth analysis of its effect on June’s vote.  

A study for the Electoral Reform Society by leading communications academics at the University of Leeds has found that more than a third (34%) of the more than four million viewers said it helped them decide who to vote for [1].

Professor Jay Blumler [2] – widely-regarded as a founder of modern-day media studies – Professor of Political Communication Stephen Coleman, and their colleague Dr Christopher Birchall form Leeds’ School of Media and Communication [3] commissioned polling of more than 2,500 people through ComRes [4], talking to voters before and after they watched the programme.

Interestingly, given the final result of a Labour surge and a hung parliament, on all the key metrics [5] voters saw as important to leaders’ performance, Jeremy Corbyn scored highest.

Younger voters – more of whom were undecided before watching the show – swung most strongly behind the Labour leader after watching the programme.

The study shows a huge surge in youth interest, with 2017 seeing a ‘decided leap forward’ in younger voters’ levels of engagement.

In 2015, just 50% of 18-24 year olds said they were fairly interested in politics. However, this year the figure jumped to 80%: on a par with older voters. Young viewers’ votes were significantly more influenced by the TV leaders’ debate than older voters’.

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 [6].

The authors and the ERS argue that ‘genuine’ head-to-head TV debates [7] must in future be institutionalised into the election process – with all major party leaders expected to appear on them.

The study shows:

  • The Question Time special helped a third (34%) of viewers decide who to vote for – and 30% whether to vote at all
  • Half of viewers felt they knew more about Labour/Tory policies than before, while 46% thought they knew more about Corbyn and May as people after the debates
  • 60% said it helped them engage in the election debate – but only 52% said they thought leaders provided factual evidence
  • Corbyn was far ahead in engaging viewers in the debate – 33% to May’s 22% said he ‘engaged [them] in the debate’ overall
  • 38% of viewers found Corbyn came across as ‘understanding people like me’, to just 24% for May
  • 40% said the QT special made them ‘more interested’ in the campaign, while 84% of viewers found it ‘good to talk about’
  • Surprisingly, Corbyn’s performance outpolled May among all age groups up to 64 year olds – on nearly all metrics or ‘entitlements’ which viewers saw as important [see 5]. For example, he polled 39% to May’s 24% among 55-64 year olds on ‘understanding people like me’
  • The QT special mitigated the levels of distrust of politicians among those who viewed it


However, the impact on young people was most profound, with 18-34 year olds getting the most out of the BBC’s election special:

  • The young were less certain about how to vote on polling day (compared to the old) – with the TV debate having a bigger impact on them. 38% of 18-34 year old viewers were undecided before polling day – to just 17% of over-55s
  • More younger voters said the programme helped them decide whether to vote and who to vote for than older ones – 45% of 18-34s said it helped them decide who to back, to just 26% of over-55s
  • First-time voters were ‘exceptionally impressed with Corbyn compared to May’. Corbyn outpolled May among 18-34 year olds by 56%-13% on ‘clear speaking’, 50%-15% on providing ‘factual evidence’, 61%-13% on ‘understanding people like me’, 56%-12% on ‘engaging me in the debate’ and 58%-15% on ‘offering a clear choice’
  • More young people watched the whole QT special than older age groups, while they also discussed it more: 93% of 18-34 year old viewers talked about it with friends or family
  • It made 52% of 18-34s ‘more interested’, to 30% of 55+ viewers
  • 68% of 18-34s said they now knew more about the policies, to 36% of over-55s

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said:

“With over a third of viewers saying the BBC’s election programme influenced their vote, this study shows just how important TV debates have become for General Elections in the UK.

“This research is proof that televised election debates are good for our democracy. That over 80% of viewers said they talked about the QT special with their friends and family shows it has a positive impact on political engagement. And 40% said the programme made them more interested in the campaign. That’s good for all of us.

“The Question Time special had a significant impact of people’s views on the main party leaders, and brought the public much closer to these figures.

“It was the ‘youth surge’ this election that was arguably most significant, as this study shows. Young people watched the election coverage in large numbers, with a high proportion of young viewers undecided before seeing the QT special.

“That those viewers then swung in large numbers behind the Labour leader suggests the programme may have had an impact on the final result – particularly when just a few hundred votes in swing seats shifted June’s outcome.

“But however they voted, the BBC’s leaders’ programme proved an excellent and vital way for young people to join the debate. More young people watched the QT special than older voters, and they discussed it in huge numbers.

“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.

“This report sets out the major impact of June’s leadership special for the first time. Now it’s time for party leaders and broadcasters to learn from voters’ views and make sure the debates are even better next time.”

The authors conclude by calling for TV debates to be made part of all General Election campaigns:

“Given that citizens benefit from media exposure to politicians who are given time to set out serious political arguments and are faced by meaningful, live challenge from sceptics and opponents, televised debates should not be regarded as an added extra within important democratic processes like election campaigns.

“The Conservative line in 2017 was that Theresa May regarded televised debates as a distraction from ‘a traditional campaign where we can get out and speak to all the voters, so they see people personally’. But getting ‘out and speaking to all the voters’ often amounts to little more than stage-managed appearances from which media and public questioning is banned.

“Debate is not only good for democracy, but a necessary condition. The Question Time Special, in which the two main party leaders appeared consecutively before a studio audience, was a valuable supplement to head-to-head debate, but not a satisfactory alternative. In the next election voters deserve to have an opportunity to watch both forms of televised debate.”


An embargoed copy of the report is available to view here:

Notes to Editors

[1] The programme was watched by 4.08m people in the week it was aired:

[2] See: and

[3] See: and

[4] Representative poll of 2,500 GB adults by ComRes: online fieldwork conducted in two stages (pre-screening and post-screening): 31st May – 8th June 2017.

[5] The metrics (or ‘entitlements’, in the study) voters valued in leaders for the TV debates were: ‘Putting their points clearly’, ‘Providing factual evidence’, ‘Providing a clear choice’, ‘Engaging me in the debate’, ‘Understanding people like me’.

[6] See the ERS’ 2017 General Election report:

[7] Theresa May was criticised for refusing to agree to a head-to-head, live-challenge debate. The BBC’s Question Time special instead had the leaders going on one at a time, responding to audience questions, rather than political opponents’ challenges. See here:

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