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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:41 pm on 7th January 2019.

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Photo of Peter Heaton-Jones Peter Heaton-Jones Conservative, North Devon 5:41 pm, 7th January 2019

It is true that manifestos, in my experience, will never make it to the top of the bestseller lists. However, although the hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point, there are other ways than a televised leaders’ debate in which parties and party leaders can get their messages across and sell their manifestos, which I will come on to.

My main concern about party leaders’ debates is that they have a tendency to suck the oxygen out of the rest of the campaign, as was ably mentioned earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk. I take a rather old-fashioned view about this, and perhaps I am aiming for some sunlit uplands that have long since dissipated—if they ever existed in the first place—but I would quite like election campaigns to be about ideas and policies and ideologies. I do not want them to be about whether the Prime Minister was wearing kitten heels, whether the Leader of the Opposition was on the right or the left podium, what colour tie the leader of a third party might have been wearing or whether the TV host of that particular event did a good job, but that is what we will get if we have a campaign that is bookended by two election debates, perhaps a fortnight apart. The first week will be looking forward to debate No. 1, the second week will be looking back at debate No. 1, the third week will be looking forward to debate No. 2 and the fourth week will be looking back at debate No. 2. Where is the time within that actually to debate policies and ideas? The difficulty is that that is what we will end up with.

I speak with a little experience, having worked in politics not only in this country but in Australia, where I worked on election campaigns. There is a longer history there of leaders’ debates on television. I have to say that they are not hugely watched, but they happen, and the public expect them to happen. However, the entire election campaign tends to be about the debate and the process of the debate, rather than the ideas that might be discussed during it. My concern is that that is what we will end up with if we rely on debates as the means to get people interested in the democratic process.

I will move on briefly to the substance of the petition—setting up an independent debates commission. I have a great deal of sympathy with this idea. If there are to be leaders’ election debates, we absolutely have to end the current chaotic system of rival broadcasters jockeying for position, putting forward opposing ideas for formats, arguing about how high the podium will be and whether people will enter from stage left or stage right—and that before individual parties start to have their say.

One side will think that a particular format put forward by one broadcaster favours their man or woman, but the other party will says it prefers another format, so we will end up with either no debate or a month of ridiculous discussions about something that only a few nerds in politics and broadcasting are interested in, and once again we will get absolutely no further forward on discussing ideas and policies. I am not convinced that an independent debates commission would change any of that.

I am also not convinced that, even if a commission was set up with a great deal of legislative power behind it, it would be immune from the sort of pressure that is currently brought to bear on the broadcasters by the different party leaders, who each jockey for a different format. I am also not convinced that it would be immune from potential legal action.

The point was well made earlier about how to define a party leader. Someone could suddenly set themselves up as a party leader. Where would that leave us? Should we then say that only potential Prime Ministers may be allowed to take part? This is a very difficult circle to square, and I am not convinced that an independent debates commission would have any success in doing so. However, my overall view is that we are barking up the wrong tree.

I absolutely want more people to be involved in the democratic process—that is vital—and I could understand if we were having this discussion 20 or 30 years ago, but I think the boat has sailed on TV election debates and on expecting people to sit down at 9 o’clock on a random Tuesday evening to watch something on linear television, even though it will be repeated and watched on iPlayer, or the Sky version thereof.

TV debates feel like they are a bit old hat in 2019. There are many more ways through which we can and should encourage people to access the democratic process, as they are already doing. There are any number of social media platforms where, in my experience from the last general election, the real policy debates seem to happen. I am not sure that, in 2019, mandating a TV election debate in prime time is really looking forward at all; it is probably looking backwards.

I was much taken by the point made by Dr Drew about the need for our regional broadcasters to get more involved in the democratic process. That is absolutely crucial. I speak as someone who spent most of his career in regional broadcasting. In my area, BBC Spotlight and ITV News West Country do a very good job with their coverage of local politics, but maybe we ought to think about such outlets taking a greater role in ensuring that some of the issues are debated on a level more relevant to people in their constituencies.

I will not detain colleagues any longer. I understand the principle behind the petition, and I applaud Sky News for initiating it. I am not opposed to leaders’ debates per se, but I remain unconvinced that they are the way forward and I am utterly unconvinced that it is possible or desirable to make it mandatory that they happen. If there is an agreement that they should take place in the future, I absolutely see the argument in favour of a debates commission independently—that is the key word—to decide on their format and timing, taking those decisions out of the hands of the broadcasters and party leaders.

Overall, I do not believe that making debates mandatory is the way forward; I remain very uncomfortable with that. I applaud the Government’s response to the petition, which I assume the Minister is about to repeat, which is that they should not change the law in this direction.