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06 March 2015

Stop playing politics with TV debates

Stop playing politics with TV debates

The clock is ticking. It’s now just 62 days until the country goes to the polls and decides who it wants in Number 10. Of course, technically we don’t vote for a prime minister. We vote for a member of parliament to represent us. There are 650 – 649, if we exclude the Speaker’s constituency – separate contests which will take place up and down the country. The party that secures over half the seats (325) available in parliament will win the election, and power.
 
And it’s the desire to win that explains the ongoing controversy over the TV debates. Yesterday, Ed Miliband accused David Cameron of “cowering” from the public after he rejected proposals for a head-to-head debate with the Labour leader. In response, the prime minister said that he wanted to “get on” with his proposal for a seven-way contest. Under David Cameron’s final offer, just one 90-minute contest would take place before 30 March, the start of the official campaign.
 
Former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown accused Mr Cameron of “running scared” and being “frightened of defending his own position”. Mr Clegg added that “if David Cameron is too busy or too important to defend the record of this government with Ed Miliband then I offer myself. How about that? I’ll do it instead.”
 
So, what are we to make of it all?
 
Well, first, it’s clear that the prime minister, like Tony Blair and countless others in office before him, doesn’t want a TV debate. Prime ministers have little to win and plenty to lose when it comes to such events. Gordon Brown only agreed to one in 2010 because the polls showed that it offered him one last chance to speak directly to the viewers. Nick Clegg, of course, was the surprising ‘winner’ of those debates, although interestingly this didn’t translate into any gains at the ballot box. In the event, the Lib Dems won only 57 seats, down five from the previous election.
 
Second, leaders of opposition parties are usually the most enthusiastic for TV debates, because it gives them exposure and allows them to appear prime ministerial. The reason that Ed Miliband doesn’t want the Greens or the SNP included in a debate is that he doesn’t want to give their respective leaders a platform or the opportunity to look like serious contenders for office and win over Labour voters in the process.
 
It’s unsurprising that politicians support an approach to the debates that will best advance the prospects of their respective parties. The party leaders genuinely believe that they and their policies are better than any of the alternatives on offer, and that their winning power is in the country’s interests. They “seek the wellbeing of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7). Still, the leaders should stop stringing the public along and playing politics with this issue. If they can’t agree on the format of a debate, how can they be serious about running the country? Considering that a coalition is a likely outcome, it would be encouraging to see politicians working together to achieve a resolution.
 
Despite all of this, we can’t use the current row as an excuse for any political apathy on our part. In the end, it’s largely irrelevant whether or not the TV debates take place. We shouldn’t decide how to vote on the basis of an hour’s debate or even a month’s campaign, but the five years that a government and their opponents have been in place.
 
And we should remember that voting is just one –  albeit important – part of political engagement. Decisions are made by those who show up, but showing up isn’t just about polling day. We get the politicians we deserve. If we don’t like the policies that are on offer by the current line-up of people and parties, we should join a party, get involved and champion a different approach. If we don’t, we only have ourselves to blame, and we might have to question whether we really do love God and our neighbours.
 
Paul Woolley used to work in politics and is now executive director at Bible Society