"Election winners should be endurance champions, not flash-in-the-pan performers."
At the end of last year it was announced that election debates had been agreed in principle. I immediately blogged that CCHQ had played the role of Santa and given Brown and, particularly, Clegg an early gift. Some readers attacked me for being too partisan. Debates would be good for democracy, they said. In the latest issue of Total Politics I explain why I'm opposed to election debates in principle. You can read my full argument here (and Adam Boulton's case for debates). But, on the day that it appears exact terms have been agreed for the debates to happen, my main arguments are...
- "When, just before Christmas, it was announced that Britain would get election debates, we were treated to a brief history of American presidential debates. What we got in that selection was all that is wrong with these gladiatorial-style contests. There was no great clash of ideas. We got funny soundbites (such as from Ronald Reagan against Walter Mondale) and great putdowns (Lloyd Bentsen against Dan Quayle). We were also reminded of how Nixon beat Kennedy among radio listeners but Kennedy beat Nixon on TV because of the latter's five o'clock shadow. That's what election debates are primarily about. They're about soundbites and how the politicians look."
- "Head-to-head debates are more appropriate in the American system than our own. In America, the presidential candidates are chosen in the year before the November election. They are only confirmed as their parties' candidates three months before Americans vote. The debates give Americans the opportunity to get to know candidates who, if elected, will have enormous powers over their government. In Britain we don't vote for a president. We vote for a local MP and for a political party. Those MPs choose a leader. The leader they have at the time of the general election may not be the leader they keep in office."
- "Debates mark another attempt to centralise our political system. It will further encourage political parties to choose a certain kind of leader who can dominate a gladiatorial politics rather than one who, perhaps, is best skilled at building a broadly-based party. Winning leadership debates will give a prime minister a greater self-importance. They will come to believe that they are the reason for their party's success. I want a politics where power is taken away from the leaders and given to the MPs and to the people."
- "I like the idea that elections are decided gradually over time. People see what happens to their incomes, to the safety of their streets and to the condition of the very poorest. They watch national politicians perform at PMQs, via a hundred TV clips and through the pages of local newspapers. For me a vote reflects the gradual accumulation of wisdom. Debates aren't part of that tradition. I always want my football team to win the Premiership rather than the FA Cup. Leagues are a test of quality week in, week out. The cup is about whether you played well on one particular day. Election winners should be endurance champions, not flash-in-the-pan performers."
2.15pm Just noticed this from Michael Crick: "I can report that the "Leaders' Debates" at the forthcoming election have now been cancelled. Instead, over the past 2-3 weeks they've been quietly replaced with "Prime Ministerial Debates". It's a cunning manoeuvre, agreed by the three main broadcasters (the BBC, ITV and Sky) and the three main parties, to exclude the SNP and Plaid Cymru leaders from the debates." With the SNP question seemingly resolved the debates are almost certain to go ahead.