TV Election Debates? Empty-Chair The Lot Of Them


Behold our political leaders debating whether or not they should participate in televised debates ahead of the general election.

We have wasted an inordinate amount of time over the past two weeks worrying about the general election televisised party leader debates. Countless headlines and front pages have been devoted to the “will they, won’t they” game of brinksmanship being played out by David Cameron and the other party leaders. Ed Miliband wasted the better part of his Prime Minister’s Questions attack on the subject. And for what?

What are we really getting excited about when we feverishly speculate over whether the debates will happen, and which of the identikit politicians will bother to appear on stage? Do we actually expect to hear serious new policy initiatives being announced? An honest discussion about the budget deficit, and competing but realistic spending plans that will bring the public finances back into balance? A searching discussion about twenty-first century Britain’s place in the world?

Has anything happened over the past five years to give us cause to hope for these things? And here’s an even more important question: Why do we care about the debates anyway?

Of course, debates between the party leaders would be useful and informative in a healthy, well-functioning democracy. But we don’t live in one of those. British politics is increasingly coming to resemble a centrist, consensual, Ayn Rand-style dystopia in which there is vanishingly little to choose between the main political parties, at least in terms of the policies that they will have the courage to announce before facing the voters.

This general election will be fought fiercely over the middle ground, with all the main parties attempting to beguile the dull, lumpen mass of undecided swing voters whose eyes, ears, hearts and wallets have fully experienced the past five years in the same way as the rest of us, but whose brains have stubbornly refused to produce anything resembling a firm opinion about the future direction that Britain should take. And the leadership debates – in whatever format and with whatever cast is eventually assembled – will reflect this depressing fact. Expect lots of triangulation, party leaders running away from their core convictions at every turn, the obligatory paeans to “Our NHS”, and not much else.

Is there a single lobby journalist in all of Westminster who could not quite easily sketch out an imagined transcript of the election leadership debates in advance, and get it right, almost word for word? Can we not already imagine the bland, focus group-approved phrases, the endless platitudes about “a future fair for all”, and “all being in ‘it’ together”?

Here’s Future Miliband: “I am passionate about creating a fairer, more equal Britain. A Britain that works for the many, not just the privileged few. A Britain with public services that you can trust, there when you need them. He [pointing to David Cameron in what his advisers intend as a dramatic flourish] wants to take us back to the 1930s. But I want to build a stronger, fairer Britain fit for the 2030s, and beyond.”

And Future Cameron: “Thanks to the tough decisions my government has taken, our economy is growing faster than any other industrialised country, and creating millions of new jobs for the British people. It has not been easy undoing the damage after thirteen years of Labour mismanagement, but by sticking to our plans our economic growth is now the envy of the world. But the hard work is not finished. We need to continue to pay down our debts so that Britain can pay her way in the world once again. Now is not the time to hand the keys to Number 10 to the same people who got us into this mess in the first place.”

And Future Clegg: “Something about pragmatism. Please don’t hate me.”

(Perhaps someone should approach the broadcasters with a proposal to have a warning klaxon sound every time that one of the party leaders utters some vacuous inanity or prefabricted zinger, with a trapdoor behind each podium ready to swing open and drop the guilty leader into a slime pit following a third offence).

When was the last time that one of the main party leaders (excepting UKIP’s Nigel Farage, the only one who still dares to speak plainly) really said something that made us stop, sit up and pay real attention? When was the last time that they got us to look at a problem differently, or consider a different solution? When was the last time we were called to face a challenge together, as a united people? When was the last time any of them surprised us at all?

The newspapers now report that Britain’s major broadcasters are hesitant to screen any Leaders debate without the Prime Minister because of “worries about government regulation” and “politics”. But let’s not mince our words. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is threatening not to take part in televised national election debates, and our major broadcasters are so afraid of political retribution that they are inclined to scrap the whole affair rather than embarrass David Cameron and risk incurring his wrath. Does that sound like a reasonable state of affairs for a modern liberal democracy? For Russia, perhaps, but not for Britain.

Yes, of course we should have pre-election debates. It is shameful that none had ever taken place prior to the 2010 general election campaign. But given the current state of our politics, let’s not set our hopes too high. For while almost everything about the coming general election campaign is new and unpredictable, there is one thing of which we can be reasonably certain: whatever our hopes or expectations for these televised leaders debates may be, we are probably in for a big disappointment.

Perhaps it is not too late to consider empty-chairing Cameron, Clegg and Miliband whether or not they wish to participate, and letting UKIP, the Greens and the SNP slug it out in an insurgent party death-match. At least we would then be treated to a real battle of ideas.

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