This election’s televised leaders debates have taken place against a backdrop of endless rows over who should be allowed to take part, in what has become a recurring feature of our election campaigns.
Arguments over format can partly be explained by the fact that they have a relatively short history in the UK, and don’t have the same kind of history and precedent to draw on like other aspects of our political campaigns. Despite the idea first being mooted in 1964, the first TV debate only took place during the 2010 general election.
Organising TV debates is still largely ad hoc, and the exact shape and format the debates take varies from election to election. It remains reliant on backroom negotiations between parties and broadcasters.
Despite some initial criticisms about adopting ‘US-style’ debates, we now know TV debates are an important source of information for UK voters. In 2017 ERS research found that 56% of people believed that leaders’ debates were important in helping them make their decision.
Over four million people tuned into the BBC Question Time debate during the 2017 election campaign, with over a third of viewers saying that it influenced their vote. Similarly, the Hansard Society found that 74% of those surveyed said that leaders’ debates and political interviews were at least ‘fairly important’ in deciding how to vote in the 2017 general election.
Today, many parliamentary democracies across the world have TV debates. One of the most interesting examples is that of Canada, where an independent Leaders’ Debates Commission was set up in 2018 to organise the debates for the 2019 federal election.
TV debates have a much longer history in Canada, having taken place since 1968, traditionally in both English and French. Until the 2015 federal election, a consortium of broadcast media organisations would organise the debates and negotiate with parties to determine format, dates and other formalities – very much like here in the UK.
From the 1990s onwards, however, the fragmentation of the party system and media landscape meant that organising TV debates became much more complex. Growing public dissatisfaction about the closed-door negotiations culminated in the 2015 federal election, when then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decided not to take part. The election debates themselves became the story of that election, leading the new PM, Justin Trudeau, to review how the contests were organised and run.
The independent Leaders’ Debates Commission was established with to organise debates between party leaders during the 2019 federal election, and to improve ‘Canadians’ knowledge of the parties, their leaders, and their policy positions’.
The Commission is headed by the former Governor General of Canada, with a former journalist as its executive director, and overseen by a seven-person advisory board comprising former parliamentarians, academics, and other stakeholders.
The Commission sought submissions from broadcasters and media organisations who wished to organise TV debates and hosted roundtables with experts and practitioners to decide on their format, structure and style.
The roundtable participants recommended that the Commission should be fully supported by public funds; be a permanent operation; have broad support from political parties; and report to the public, not government.
The Commission clearly set out and enforced the criteria for inclusion in TV debates, with parties having to satisfy at least two of the following three criteria to take part:
- A party must have at least one MP elected under the party’s banner in the House of Commons at dissolution.
- A party must run candidates in at least 90% of all constituencies.
- A party must have obtained at least 4% of the vote at the previous election, or be considered by the commissioner – on the basis of public opinion polls – to have a legitimate chance of electing some of its members to the Commons.
Following the 2019 election, the Commission is due to present a report to parliament with recommendations on how to organise debates in future elections.
Though it was faced with some challenges (primarily relating to the effectiveness of the format of the English-speaking debate), Canada’s experience shows how, even in a multi-party parliamentary democracy, a Debates Commission can help parties and media outlets reach agreement – shifting the focus of TV debates away from arguments about their format, to the important role they play in informing voters and helping them make their choice on election day.
Democracy relies on voters being able to make free and informed decisions on who to vote for – for which having access to information they can trust is vital. With the rise of micro-targeted dark ads and information overload, TV debates offer a rare shared opportunity for voters to hear directly from those wanting to lead the country. An independent Debates Commission would help enshrine TV debates as part of the UK’s electoral framework and guarantee voters the right to informative, vibrant debates.