This site believes that TV election debates are desirable but not essential. They’re desirable because they might cast some light (rather than heat alone) on the matters upon which people may vote in a few weeks time. But they’re not essential, because the electorate is more than capable of making up its own mind without them.
We favour a single debate including all the parties currently represented in the Commons, plus three between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, all carried out before the start of the election campaign proper. This would allow the broadcasters to have their place in the sun, but not nab all the loungers by the pool – as they did in 2010. Their TV debates then shaped the whole campaign, which was spent debating Nick Clegg’s pros and cons, and there’s no good reason why that should happen again.
Had the broadcasters gone for this idea or one like it, the debates might well have happened. But they have muddled around, eventually folding on the issue of a multi-party debate. This has allowed the Prime Minister to dodge what he wants to avoid: namely, a single debate with Miliband in which the Labour leader could only exceed expectations – which are 20,000 leagues under the sea or lower – and be declared the winner by a media collective that, not unreasonably, wants the election to be a contest.
Were the debates essential, he would be wrong to do so. But this returns me to where I started. They’re not. They’re desirable under certain conditions, which include the broadcasters curbing their sense of entitlement, acting collectively and competently, and acknowledging that TV election debates are not part of the constitution. None of these have been met. They will doubtless now move on to threaten the Cameron with a debate, Miliband, and an empty chair.
And, yes, if this takes place during the campaign, it will probably damage the Prime Minister. But it’s unlikely that they will show more unity now than previously: Channel 4 and Sky are reportedly mulling accepting Cameron’s offer of a multi-party debate outside the election campaign itself. The BBC will be rightly nervous of breaching its public service obligations. And lurking in the background, as ever, will be legal challenge and m’learned friends.
Whatever happens next, we in the media will ramp the story up – since there are few stories more important to us than those about ourselves – and Downing Steet will cross its fingers and hope that it fades away. In the meantime, the voters will stifle a yawn, if they can be bothered to do even that. They are not marching in the streets to demand more politicians on their TV screens. The reverse, if anything.