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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:14 pm on 7th January 2019.

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts and Heritage) 6:14 pm, 7th January 2019

I will not give way to the hon. Lady, because she was not here for the debate and I am old school in that regard, I am afraid. I am happy to give way otherwise. It is not personal, but that is how I prefer to operate.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr made a valid point, but I think it raises interesting issues about which parties should be involved in these debates. They certainly must have a role and somehow be incorporated into this process, whether through the means suggested by Mr Bone or others.

The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay also said that leaders are much more visible and accessible these days than they used to be. I am not sure that is entirely true. When Clement Attlee was campaigning to be Prime Minister in 1945 and 1950, he drove around the country with his wife, Violet, in a Hillman Minx, to engage with the electorate. It is certainly true that times have changed. Attlee also said that being Prime Minister was the job that took up the least amount of his time of any job he had ever had.

The hon. Gentleman gave an interesting response to the questions from Parliament’s social media. Some of the points being made about the potential Americanisation of politics are important. However, I think the real challenges are not about the Americanisation of politics through TV debates, but about the involvement of large and shadowy amounts of money in British politics—the activities of organisations such as Cambridge Analytica and so on. Those are more worrying issues with the Americanisation of politics, rather than our having television debates.

My hon. Friend Dr Drew quite rightly said that the decision about whether we should have debates should not just rest in the hands of the Prime Minister. He also quite rightly pointed out the lack of television coverage of regional politics these days. He wanted to take the issue of debates out of party politics. He referred to the Nixon-Kennedy debates, saying that the thing he knows is that Nixon lost. Interestingly, of course, a lot of the polls showed that Nixon had won, particularly for people who had followed the debates on the radio rather than on television. That makes a valid point about the role of image in people’s political perspectives. Whether or not the TV debate was responsible for John Kennedy’s narrow victory is highly debatable, not least because when his father, Joseph Kennedy, was asked why the victory had been so narrow, he said that he could not afford a landslide. Again, money was perhaps more compelling and important in American politics than the debates.

In response to the hon. Member for Wellingborough, who also mentioned the 2010 debates, I am tempted to say—unusually—“I agree with Peter,” because I did agree with much of what he said. We look forward to seeing the details of his private Member’s Bill. He is the sort of Member who would never commit to supporting a Bill without having read every clause and word, and without having carefully performed an exegesis of every part, so I will not make any commitments about his Bill until we have seen what it says, but it certainly sounds like it contains some interesting ideas. We look forward to it surfacing on the Ides of March, as he suggested, and hopefully it will have a less portentous fate than that date might otherwise suggest.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the inclusion of the minor parties in one of the debates proposed by his Bill. It is an interesting area, because it is true that some parties that have a lower share of the vote and that do not stand in all parts of the United Kingdom were represented in previous debates—for example, in 2015, when David Cameron insisted on having a diluted debate because he did not want to have a head-to-head debate with my right hon. Friend Edward Miliband and preferred to have a large number of voices, possibly to defuse the impact of the event overall. Nevertheless, despite the fact that it is the “Conservative and Unionist” party, at no point was it suggested that the Democratic Unionist party should participate in the debate. Unlike Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party, it was not invited, even though it also stands in only one of the constituent countries of the United Kingdom. Nor was the Social Democratic and Labour party, which had hon. Members elected to this House at that time; the Ulster Unionist party, which has had hon. Members elected to this House in recent times; or indeed—whether it would have turned up or not—Sinn Féin, which stands in the general election and has elected MPs, although they do not take the oath or take their seats in this place.

There is an asymmetry to the way that such debates have been organised. Northern Ireland has largely been excluded from that process, even though it is an integral part of the United Kingdom. It is interesting that we now frequently debate the issue of the British border in Ireland, as I call it, because of the backstop and Brexit, but that in those general election debates, Northern Ireland was treated as a sideshow and almost as a separate election from the United Kingdom general election in terms of inviting people to participate. We look forward to the Bill tabled by the hon. Member for Wellingborough.

My hon. Friend Graham Stringer reluctantly accepted that there would have to be a quango to administer election debates, but quite rightly pointed out that any such body should have a greater diversity than bodies such as the Electoral Commission. I agree that different political views should be represented, and it would also be important for any such body to have representation from the nations and regions of the United Kingdom, and from different social classes. Many of our bodies tend to be made up of the same kind of people with similar views. His suggestions on that were refreshing and interesting.

My hon. Friend also discussed the 2010 leadership debates and the so-called Cleggmania that allegedly resulted. Interestingly, of course, despite that spike in the polls, the Liberal Democrats won fewer seats in the 2010 election than they had held before, but because it was a hung Parliament, they ended up in government for the next five years.

John Lamont was extremely critical of Sky News for having campaigned on the issue. I have thought carefully about what he said and whether it is appropriate for a broadcaster to campaign in that way. It would be wholly inappropriate for a broadcaster to campaign on a political policy issue, but I do not think it is inappropriate—it is not outwith Ofcom’s rules—for a broadcaster to campaign in such a way for such debates. It is possibly more difficult for the BBC and ITV, which are also party to Ofcom’s rules, because special considerations are involved for public service broadcasters. I do not agree, however, that it was inappropriate for Sky News to campaign on the issue and in fact, in doing so, I think it has provided a valuable public service and has helped to bring about this interesting debate.