Televised Election Debates — [Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:20 pm on 7th January 2019.

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Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton 5:20 pm, 7th January 2019

Like my hon. Friend Dr Drew, I originally turned up to listen to the debate and possibly to make an intervention, but I will follow the excellent speech by Mr Bone. I start with two disappointments. One is that there are not more right hon. and hon. Members present. This is an important issue; I can guarantee that every Member of Parliament has a view about how debates on television and in the media should be conducted during a general election. It is a disappointment that more people have not turned up. It is disrespectful to the 130,000 people who petitioned for the debate and it does not do justice to the importance of the issue.

My second disappointment is that the three hon. Members who spoke before me all came to the conclusion that we need a quango to regulate debates. Reluctantly, I agree with them. As we do not have a written constitution, it has the merit of being flexible; when the world changes the processes within this place and electorally change. If people were acting with democratic spirit and good will, and as television and the media have developed, one would have expected politicians and political parties to have responded to that by enabling people to benefit from having the debate broadcast on television in their front rooms. That has not happened for the reasons stated explicitly by the hon. Member for Wellingborough. When Leaders of the Opposition are massively ahead in the opinion polls, they do not want a debate. Why would they risk hitting a banana skin? When Prime Ministers are in No. 10 and ahead in the opinion polls, they want to avoid exactly the same banana skin. Therefore, I think we need a regulatory body.

My heart sank when Steve Double went through the list of the great and the good who would have to serve on a quango to regulate television debates—judges and other people. Sadly, we have developed a population of quangocrats who serve on many quangos, scratch each other’s backs and move from one quango to another. That means that sometimes we do not get the breadth and the quality in those organisations that we should. I make a partisan point here, from the position I have taken on the Brexit debate. It is extraordinary that the total membership of the Electoral Commission are remainers. The difficult problem in setting up any quango is not going to the pool of people who have made themselves available to serve—often public spiritedly; I do not want to be too mean—as it is a closed group. Reluctantly, I think we have to have a body that will consider the complicated issues involved, but I hope it is not the list that was given by the able motivator of the motion, the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay.

It is important that we have televised debates or discussions set up, in whatever form, because sometimes we do not state the blindingly obvious: that debate is at the core of democracy and our society. We need to have that debate in as many forums as we can. When the BBC was the monopoly broadcaster in the 1950s, it might have been sensible to just have the debate on the BBC, but now we have a range of social media and different television broadcasters, including access to television stations from around the world, as well as traditional print media. We need to ensure that there is regulation on television, which is where most people look for discussion during a general election. The viewing figures for the debates in 2010 were immense. However much Cleggmania we had in that election—and I got worried looking at the figures because it seemed that the Lib Dems were going to get a huge number of votes in my constituency, but I went out every day and I suppose I must have knocked on a Lib Dem door, but nobody admitted to it through the whole campaign—those debates were important, as the people and leaders challenged each other, but I do not think they changed very much.

That has been the case in many elections. I remember the opinion polls ticking over on the bottom of the Sky television screen in the 1997 election, barely shifting half a point during the whole election. We live in a time where the world is changing and politics are more fluid than they have ever been. We need a response to that. It would be the difficult job of a regulatory body to balance up the major parties and who would be invited. It is said, rather glibly, that only the leaders of the parties that are likely to provide the Prime Minister should be there. If we looked at the experience in Canada, the people who were going to be Prime Minister before the election eight or nine years ago were not elected. One of the major parties got 2%. There have been major changes in European Union countries. Parties that were permanently in the ascendency, such as the Social Democrats in Sweden, are now minor parties. Sometimes these changes happen very quickly. There has never been a more intense time for debate.

It is going to be a difficult job for any regulatory body that is set up, but I think it is vital. It is not just that there are a lot of different outlets for information nowadays. We have coined the phrase “fake news” for a lot of the information that has been used in elections and referendums, because of the internet. One of great things about a debate is the ability to challenge lies. In the old cliché, if you keep on telling lies I will keep on telling the truth. That is the purpose of debate.

People have complained about the referendum—about whether certain facts were facts—but it is the purpose of debate to expose such things. What better place than on television, with a huge audience, to get those issues out? I do not think that the 2010 election was affected by the television debates, but I believe that the 2017 election was massively affected by the debates, quite simply because the Prime Minister did not have the courage to debate. She would not put the case for the Conservative party, which went from having a large lead in the opinion polls to not being able to form a majority Government. If anyone doubts the power of the debate, I think the television companies were right to empty-seat the Prime Minister and go ahead without her. It was a bit strange, and it looked a bit strange, but it exposed the fact that the leader of one of our major parties was unprepared to get up and defend its position.

I have another example of the positive side of television debate and discussion, although not in a formal leaders’ debate. It certainly affected me when I saw how important it was. Hon. Members will remember the rise of the British National party. It did not rise to a significant extent, but it looked as if it was making progress when it was led by the bottom-feeder Nick Griffin. On the evening when he went on “Question Time” I was in someone’s front room talking about pavements and street lighting. At the end of the meeting they said to me, “Are you going to go and buy a bottle of wine?” I thought, “What do these people know about my drinking habits? That’s a bit strange,” but every single one of those people, living in terraced houses in north Manchester, was going back to watch Nick Griffin and Jack Straw, and the other party people on “Question Time”. Griffin was destroyed and the BNP fell apart. That is the power of debate, and however complicated it is to deal with parties that have significant support with no representation, and those such as the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru whose primary objective is to get out of this place, and who do not want their leader to be Prime Minister but who clearly have a significant democratic impact in the whole United Kingdom, we should do what we can to facilitate those positions.

I could go on speaking about this issue, which is an important one, on which we should be giving support. Having heard what the hon. Member for Wellingborough said I wish him well with his Bill. It may need some tweaks. However, the whole of the House of Commons and House of Lords should get together, because when we are away from elections we all believe in debate. It is only vested interest, when we think we can grab an election without debating, that stops it happening. I did not intend to speak, but the debate is a good one, and it is a shame more people are not here. Sky is to be congratulated, as are the people who signed the petition, on stimulating the discussion.