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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 7th January 2019.

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Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay 4:30 pm, 7th January 2019

Leaders’ debates on television are unique because the leaders of political parties go head to head with each other. On social media, political parties primarily promote their own leader or policies. Head-to-head debates, which clearly need to be managed and adjudicated fairly and transparently, are quite different from parties’ campaigning on other media platforms. Party political broadcasts on TV are already regulated, and this proposal is an extension of that. The head-to-head nature of TV debates means that they are a slightly different animal from regular campaigning.

I think we should embrace debates. As has been mentioned, we must balance any decision to formalise regular leaders’ debates with people’s legitimate concerns. We have to acknowledge that not everyone believes that this is a positive step or the right way forward. In the run-up to this debate, the House of Commons social media team carried out a very quick, unscientific survey on its Facebook page. It asked:

“Should party leaders have to take part in a TV debate before a general election?”

The response was mixed. More commenters were opposed to televised leaders’ debates than were in favour. Many felt that TV debates are largely about performance and that they facilitate judgments based on personality, appearance and media-savviness, rather than on a leader’s capacity to be Prime Minister. Some referred to the Americanisation of British politics and suggested that debates could result in a more presidential style of politics, which runs contrary to our parliamentary institutions and tradition. Others pointed to the perceived gap between politicians and voters, and said that canvassing constituents and other forms of direct engagement would be far more useful. It is right to acknowledge that not everyone is entirely enthusiastic about this proposal and we must balance those views. It is important that we weigh up the genuine concerns and reflect on them before any decision to press ahead is made. I have personally considered the pros and cons of regular debates. Although I believe that we will inevitably reach that point and that it is probably better to embrace and shape the idea rather than resist it, a number of important points need to be considered.

It is important that we do not allow leaders’ debates to dominate political campaigning in general elections. Debates should not replace other forms of campaigning and should complement the election campaign, rather than replace or dominate it, so there must be careful consideration of how many debates are scheduled. We had in three in 2010, which was probably too many. I think it would more naturally sit at one or two.

It is also important that we think carefully about the timing of debates. During the 2010 campaign and the debates that took place then, I was very much aware of the role of postal votes. Today, increasing numbers of voters choose to vote by post, and we need to recognise that for many millions of people across the country, polling day is not election day. It happens several days before election day, when their postal votes land on their doorsteps. We need to take that into account. It was wrong that in 2010 some of the debates happened after the postal votes had landed, and some people had already voted before all the debates took place. Certainly, if I had any role in this, I would strongly recommend that all leaders’ debates took place on television before postal votes were dispatched, to ensure that every voter had a chance to see the televised debates before they had the opportunity to vote.

Another benefit is that that would free up the last couple of weeks of the campaign. Those final two weeks of the campaign would not be dominated by televised leaders’ debates but by the other, more traditional forms of campaigning. I think that would be the right thing to do. I am sure that many of us remember David Cameron’s comments when reflecting on the 2010 debates. He said that

“they took all the life out of the…campaign” in those final weeks because they sucked in so much energy and attention. Avoiding that would be very welcome.

Sound and informed debates are one of the fundamental pillars of our parliamentary democracy, and it makes sense that the voting public can see our political leaders in debate during general election campaigns. We need to accept that our politics continue to change, and to adapt to changes in how people communicate and inform themselves. We should embrace that change in our election campaigning. Leaders’ debates are a good format for making politicians more accessible to voters and, should we decide to formalise regular leaders’ debates, it is absolutely right that responsibility for managing the process is taken out of the hands of politicians and broadcasters and put into the hands of an independent commission. It should be completely funded by broadcasters, and the bill should not in any way come to rest on the taxpayer.

I trust that the debate will prove a useful opportunity to consider the matter. Once again, I thank Sky News for initiating the petition, as well as the 130,000 people who signed it. I look forward to the contributions of other hon. Members and to hearing the Minister’s response.