In an age where much of what we see and read about politics is micro-targeted and atomised, TV leaders’ debates offer a rare shared event for supporters of all parties – one reason why the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) has long been broadly in favour of the broadcasts.
When done fairly, they can be a great democratic aid – assisting voters as they prepare to have their say in elections and referendums.
That’s why the ERS backed Sky News’ campaign for proper, guaranteed general election debates between party leaders – a petition which has now gathered the necessary 100,000 signatories to be considered for a Parliamentary debate.
It’s also why we cautiously welcomed the idea of a Brexit debate when it was first mooted a few weeks ago.
Cautiously because – due to the lack of clear rules on this stuff – politicians have been keen to fight over the options, in a fairly dispiriting power-struggle with the broadcasters.
Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are currently at loggerheads over the format: the Prime Minister favours the BBC’s proposal for a broader range of voices to be involved, while the Leader of the Opposition believes it should be more of a direct head-to-head.
Last year both leaders threatened to boycott the TV election debates, over a perception various formats wouldn’t benefit them.
In the wake of these spats, one thing should be clear: it shouldn’t be for politicians to decide how they are scrutinised in TV debates. These broadcasts are now a core part of elections: they are part of the democratic framework of the UK. So let’s get some clear rules in place.
A Debates Commission – with representation from voters – could ensure democracy in the 21st century is on the public’s terms, not politicians.
It is ironic that party leaders tried to duck out of TV debates before the last General Election but are now chomping at the bit for a Brexit debate after which there will not be a public vote.
And whichever format is settled on for the Brexit debate, it should involve a range of parties to reflect the politically diverse Britain of today. We already have polarised head-to-heads in PMQs: let’s have a variety of voices.
Whatever your take on Brexit, it’s clear that neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn can represent the entire spectrum of views on Brexit.
That will not end the current tussle, of course. So it’s time the issue was taken out of politicians’ hands.
If there is to be a TV debate on Brexit – which could potentially attract millions of viewers – the driving force behind all decisions must be to enhance democracy.
There is a real risk that currently the debate is being used by both sides as nothing more than a political tool.
Let’s not have a fracas over debate format every single election: instead, we should have a dedicated framework – setting out when debates take place, who is involved and the issues to be discussed.
The tantrums over the Brexit TV debate should push all sides to come together – just this once –and get it right.
Read the ERS’ Debating the TV Debates report