Debating the debate

By | News & Politics
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has called for broadcasters to bring 'new proposals' for the televised General Election debates. Credit@Cabinet Office via Flickr.

The leader of the Liberal Democrats has called for a rethink regarding the televised debates that involve leaders of various UK political parties ahead of the General Election on May 7th. Nick Clegg – leader of the Liberal Democrats – became Deputy Prime Minister to Prime Minister David Cameron when a coalition government was formed with the Conservative party in 2010. Clegg suggests a change to the format of the televised debates stating, “the broadcasters need to come forward with other proposals”.

This follows Prime Minister David Cameron’s announcement that he may refrain from entering the debates unless the Green Party are included as the broadcasters have included the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) Nigel Farage.

The national televised debates were first used in the 2010 General Election and the Liberal Democrats were large beneficiaries which led to one of the best electoral performances in recent history. Deputy Prime Minster Clegg, who was involved in the 2010 debates, stated “The broadcasters [are] open to consultation. They put a proposal on the table, they’re taking feedback on that. They should be listening to the public and you have a chance to put your voice over too.”

The planned structure involves three separate debates planned for April 2nd, April 16th and the April 30th with the General Election on May 7th. While the debate structure remains undecided, it is has been suggested that the format may be thus. The first may be a head-to-head between Labour party leader Ed Miliband and the Prime Minister David Cameron. The second; Cameron and Miliband again, with the inclusion of the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. Finally a third debate including all three previously featured parties, with the addition of UKIP leader Nigel Farage. This structure may be changed if the Green party is added to the debates however there is also the possibility that the debates might go ahead without representatives for either the Conservatives or the Greens.

Mr Cameron’s announcement has been challenged by other parties who suggest the reason he is trying to side-step the debates is due to the growing popularity of UKIP, who are expected to share the right-wing vote with the Conservatives. Also, the insistence of the left-wing Green party might be seen as an attempt to cause Labour and the Greens to split the left-wing vote. As a result of the media attention around the debates, membership of the Green party has grown and this may lead to increased support in the General Election for the party that mixes pro-environmental policy with campaigning on fairness and equality.

The 2010 debates attracted a large television audience and appeared to create more interest and increase awareness of the differences in policy between the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The debates are an opportunity for the electorate to evaluate and hold the candidates to the promises they declare. Furthermore, diverse political party involvement may help the election as the possibility of another coalition government is high and to hear the perspective of other parties may increase the awareness of the electorate about the potential coalition partners. Equally, the debates seem to be more informative than the other more controlled forms of campaigning as it is often the only opportunity to see the different party leaders discussing their various pledges and ambitions for the country.

The political leaders and broadcasters may renegotiate the structure of the debates, which may include the Green party involvement. Although the presence of the incumbent Prime Minister would seem a lynchpin to the debates being relevant, they may proceed without his involvement as the other parties have pledged to continue regardless. The election results promise to be a tough prediction due to the potential of traditional blocs of voters becoming split between larger parties and smaller niche parties such as the Greens. Membership and support of the smaller parties is growing and it may appear that, as in the debates, they might play an important role in this election as potential coalition partners and as competitors.

How might the national televised debates bring about productive benefits to General Elections?

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