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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:58 pm on 7th January 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Tommy Sheppard Tommy Sheppard Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Lords) 5:58 pm, 7th January 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, even though you are about to leave.

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

On a Monday morning I usually spend time traveling down from Scotland to take part in the afternoon’s business, but today was a little different. Already being here, I had the great privilege and honour of being interviewed live on Sky News from its platform on College Green. It was a very interesting experience, because today there was a cornucopia of dissenters heckling and providing a narrative to the entire episode, including some members of the English Defence League and an evangelical gentleman who all the way through the interview encouraged me to repent my sins.

In the middle of that experience, the redoubtable Adam Boulton asked me whether I would have faith in an independent commission to organise these TV debates. I had to think about that a little, because I would not want to write anyone a blank cheque—particularly not a new quango, were one to be set up—but my response was that I would have more faith in an independent commission to organise TV debates than I have in the way that is done at present, which is a chaotic and anarchic amalgam of political fixers getting together to try to do what is best for them and the broadcasters trying to do what is best for them. I am attracted, therefore, to the idea of putting this on a statutory footing and having in writing the rights and the responsibilities to which the commission would have to adhere in organising the debates.

Three immediate benefits would arise from having an independent commission. The first is that that would take the matter out of party politics, out of the hands of the political fixers, and provide a level playing field and a set of fair rules that everyone would have to abide by. I am sure that from time to time they might prove inconvenient or troublesome to one or other of the parties, but it would none the less be a situation in which everyone had to play by the same set of rules.

The second reason why I would welcome an independent commission is that it would give us the opportunity to ensure that not just third party but fourth, fifth, sixth and other minority voices were represented in the debate. The third reason why I think that having an independent commission would be useful is that that would allow some discussion to take place, and some control, over the format of the debates. We have not spent much time this afternoon talking about format, but I would understand why a lot of people might be sceptical about the idea of television debates if they resembled the circus that we have every Wednesday afternoon at Prime Minister’s questions. That is an exercise in how the Executive are not accountable to the legislature, with prearranged and, quite often, pre-rehearsed questions and answers being traded for the benefit of the TV cameras. It is not really an exercise in scrutiny or debate. Allowing a more inquisitive format, whereby people are allowed truly to challenge each other and perhaps are also subject to third-party questioning in moderation would be, it seems to me, extremely beneficial.

Until the last two colleagues spoke, I was worried that this debate would be a bit one-sided; there was consensus among all those who spoke previously. But in the last 20 minutes or so, some arguments have been advanced against the principle of having television debates at all, never mind whether they should be run by an independent commission. I think it is important, as we consider how this argument develops, that we consider the arguments against and see whether they have validity or can themselves be countered. I want to spend a couple of minutes on some of them.

The first is the suggestion—this has been hinted at—that having televised debates would somehow trivialise serious political discourse, that it would be taking politics and important decisions and putting them on television in the name of entertainment. It seems to me that having an independent commission would be the best way to guard against the trivialisation of politics and its being presented as entertainment, because we could build into the process clear rules to prevent that from happening. I also think that when party organisers, media or broadcast officers, or whoever is responsible, express such concerns, they are being a little disingenuous, because those are the very same people who spend an awful lot of time and money looking at the very latest social media platforms and trying to ensure that they are using them as effectively as possible—often by trivialising or, certainly, condensing the political message so that it is easily understood on those very limited platforms.

The other argument against is, “Well, how would you define what a leader is?” I want to discuss at this point the role of the SNP, in particular, in such debates because John Lamont suggested that someone watching in Cornwall might not care very much about what the leader of the Scottish National party would have to say, were she to take part in a debate. Perhaps that is because he assumes that the leader of the Scottish National party would talk about matters only in relation to Scotland, which is of course the principal brief of the SNP, but it seems to me that televised debates also provide an opportunity for everyone in the place where the election is taking place, which for now would be the United Kingdom, to ask, “What type of Government do we wish to get out of this electoral process?”

As the hon. Gentleman knows, his side was successful and mine unsuccessful back in 2014, in the Scottish independence referendum, so for now, Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom, which means that its representatives in this Parliament have every bit as much right as anyone else to determine and to influence the character of the Government of the United Kingdom. I think that people in Cornwall and everywhere else in the United Kingdom would be extremely interested to know what criteria the SNP would adopt in this Parliament, were it successful in the election, in terms of determining who should form the next Government of the United Kingdom.