- Statement from the Electoral Reform Society for immediate release, 18th November 2019
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Campaigners are calling for an end to the ‘distracting rows’ over the format of TV election debates – with an independent commission to oversee future contests.
The intervention comes after the High Court ruled ITV had not broken broadcasting code by excluding the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party from its televised contest, ahead of the first of the debates tomorrow .
A report for the ERS in 2017 showed that the BBC Question Time leaders’ special influenced over one million voters’ decision on election day  – around one in three viewers – showing just how ‘important and influential’ they can be.
Darren Hughes, Chief Executive, Electoral Reform Society said:
“Voters are getting tired of the debates over the debates – we should be focusing on the policies instead. We’ve had legal challenges and seemingly endless rows over the format of these shows. It’s time to call time on them and move to an independent commission to set the rules.
“These debates are a vital democratic event in our election cycle, but we cannot let arguments about process overshadow the wider political debates of the election campaign. .
“The Question Time special in 2017 had four million viewers – and it helped over a third of them decide how to vote – according to research for the ERS. That means getting it right matters, through clear, transparent guidelines and voters’ involvement.
“But the debate format simply cast the choice be held to ransom by party leaders each time. We cannot continue to allow our election campaigns to be dominated by debates about debates.
“As it stands, so much depends on broadcasters bargaining with politicians, through backroom deals, and political calculations made by the parties based on their current polling.
“Party leaders cannot be allowed to decide each election what to do – we need a more standardised and transparent approach. Voter should be guaranteed vibrant, multi-party debates – as well as head-to-heads that reflect how voters are ‘shopping around’ today.”
“The new Speaker could establish a Debates Commission – as Canada recently did – 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. Let’s find a positive way through this.”
Notes to Editors