There was a story noticeably absent on the front pages on Monday: Sunday night’s Brexit TV leaders debate. That’s because – for all the valiant efforts of broadcasters, there wasn’t one.
The past month has seen fierce, impassioned interventions involving all parties. A clash of Britain’s warring clans…on the topic of whether to have a TV leaders debate on Brexit. Time, effort and energy that could have been spent actually engaging voters on where we take our country now.
In the end, four party figures came together to put forward their vision for the country – including two Conservatives (James Cleverly putting forward the PM’s vision, and Jacob Rees-Mogg for the Tory right), alongside Labour MP Barry Gardiner, host Krishnan Guru-Murthy, and Green MP Caroline Lucas.
As Sky News’ Faisal Islam tweeted, it gave us a shimmer of ‘much-needed reflection of the main strands of the Parliamentary problem ahead of us’. But while the speakers should be commended for standing up for their views, it was glaringly clear to viewers that none of them are leaders of their parties.
It’s a sad reflection of where we’re in the 21st century that our party leaders cannot even agree on how to debate each other. (That was made all the more pertinent by Monday’s parliamentary row on delaying the vote on the Brexit deal).
But we should be used to TV leaders debates by now: we’ve had versions of them in each of the last three general elections. The need for them has only grown, too.
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 and none. Where we know that the message being put forward is going to the whole country – not manipulated or distorted to reach 100 people on a Facebook feed.
When done fairly, they can be a great democratic aid – assisting voters as they prepare to have their say in elections and referendums.
In 2017, ERS research found that 56 percent of people believed leaders’ debates were important in helping them make their decision. More than 4 million people watched BBC Question Time leaders’ special at that time.
That’s why the ERS backed Sky News’ campaign for proper, guaranteed general election debates between party leaders – a petition which has now gathered hurtled past the necessary 100,000 signatories to be considered for a Parliamentary debate.
Here’s a basic principle we need to get behind: 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: party leaders must take part.
A Debates Commission – initiated by the Speaker and with representation from voters – could ensure democracy in the 21st century is on the public’s terms, not party apparatchiks.
In our multi-party, diverse and decentralised democracy, they must ensure more than two parties are represented. Whatever your take on Brexit, or the million other issues Britain faces, it’s clear that neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn can represent the entire spectrum of views.
It’s time the issue was taken out of politicians’ hands. 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. If we can’t do that, well – then we really should be worried.
Thankfully, MPs and leaders have a second chance. On the 7th January, a Commons committee will discuss the ‘Make Debates Happen’ petition, to get guaranteed TV election debates. Sorting that is surely the least voters deserve.
This piece was originally posted on politics.co.uk