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

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

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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

Members have said in this debate that of course the British system is not a presidential system, so it is not just a matter of who will become the Prime Minister; indeed, we do not elect Prime Ministers in the election, which is constitutionally absolutely correct. For me, the purpose of TV debates is not just to say, “Who is going to be the next Prime Minister?” and to have some gladiatorial contest between the potential challengers for that position. It is a matter of saying, “What do we want the Government of the country to be? What are the serious issues they should adopt? What are their priorities? What is their general direction?” That is where TV debates can prove extremely useful, in educating the public and raising awareness of those very important issues, and having an independent commission would give us or it the opportunity to ensure that matters were conducted in a way that allowed that to happen, rather than this being seen as some sort of presidential contest.

There has also been a suggestion that somehow it is not quite right that Parliament should seek to make regulations for broadcasters and that it is up to them to cover politics in whatever way they see fit. The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk was critical of Sky, in particular, and the editorial judgments that it makes to cover its own campaign. There is already much regulation about the conduct and coverage of elections in this country. We have a very highly regulated electoral system, and quite right too, so that people are able to make a challenge if something is seen to go wrong. Therefore, the idea of Parliament seeking to regulate the broadcast coverage of an election campaign or any other political campaign seems to me to be entirely consistent with the fair and democratic process that we have of trying to ensure that all these matters are fairly regulated.

There was also a suggestion that somehow a national TV debate would undermine local campaigning. I am sorry, but I just do not buy that. In my experience, and as colleagues have mentioned, people do tune in to the TV debate, perhaps because of how it is presented as a television programme. But the effect of doing that is to engage them with the political process more generally. Having had their appetite whetted a little—perhaps “having been hooked” is the wrong phrase—they move on to take more interest in the local campaigns and to ask questions. Perhaps they even get involved; perhaps they turn up to hustings for local candidates as well. The two things can be perfectly symbiotic: one can encourage the other. Anything that we can do to stimulate political awareness and engagement will be for the long-term benefit of our democracy.

Returning to the question of the role of minority voices, it is important to stress—I say this to Mr Bone—that this is no longer a two-party political system, if it ever was; there are third, fourth and fifth parties, and they have a right to be represented as well.