How the TV debates can avoid watering down policy issues

With some surprise and excitement 2010 saw the first of three American style leadership debates for the General Election. The 2015 General Election will see the debates return, but this time with a plurality of parties represented to offset the criticism that smaller political parties that have the same right to be held.

But will the inclusion of so many voices, coupled with the need to get through an agenda of policy items, drown out the issues that really need to be discussed?

Ahead of the 2015 election party leaders are now in overdrive to amend the oversight of their exclusion in 2010. The Greens, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and UKIP are all vying for the spotlight, hoping for the same ‘bounce’ that the Liberal Democrats received by their participation (It is perhaps for the psephologists and historians to determine if the first coalition since World War Two was the by-product of their inclusion).

The danger from the change is not that our democracy would be undermined by the inclusion of a plethora of different parties, but that the debate could reduce serious policy issues to meaningless summaries because of time constraints on at least seven leaders. This is an argument in favour of scrapping the debates if it will ensure that issues do not become evening news zeitgeist with little to no substance in the style of PMQs. The 2010 debates saw a creeping habit of this, particularly with regards to the difference between debt and the deficit and the ‘I agree with Nick’ sign-off from both Cameron and Brown.

What must be avoided is the pre-arranged, practised answers that are so regulated and abstract a format that there exists only enough time for soundbites and none for real answers. Even with two candidates, the dance is usually so balletic that many assume the candidates must be snake oil salesmen because the answers are too polished and too succinct.

The matter is further complicated by the unique issues of devolution that have yet to be definitely resolved. The Scottish National Party look set to wipe Scotland clean of its current Labour majority of MPs. SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already stoked controversy by rejecting David Cameron’s proposed ‘English votes, for English laws’ proposal; making the interesting case that her party will vote on English issues as any Westminster vote could have a knock-on effect on funding for Scottish issues. Should devolution be treated as a policy area in the debates, or should Sturgeon reserve the right to comment when and on what she pleases, despite the SNP not contesting any seats outside of Scotland?

The picture that headlines this article is from the second 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. What is striking about this debate is just how uncomfortable Nixon looks. Despite Nixon’s experience making him the frontrunner, Kennedy’s easy charm made him the natural choice. What we must ward off is using the events of the next decade and Watergate as an excuse to judge a candidate on their posture and mannerisms alone. It should not become a catwalk for how good looking or trustworthy we think a candidate is.

As debates are likely to remain a political fixture for the foreseeable future, the issues that must be ironed out are balancing the pluralistic nature of our democracy with screen time. Yet, these are problems that have plagued TV debates for decades, particularly in the US. They are not going to be answered anytime soon.

Instead, political parties and organisers should embrace that technology is changing and television and news channels are a bit of a hark back.

The solution? Abandon the whole ‘for TV mentality’. Candidates, parties and organisers must take advantage of online and streaming options and have no shame in taking several hours to explore the issues in-depth. BBC Live News, BBC Democracy and all UK Parliament websites give zero fretting over to time limits. A General Election debate, exclusive to the net, would be a calendar extravaganza.

Facebook and Sky are already planning an interactive leadership debate with Labour leader Ed Miliband and Green leader Natalie Bennett, but with the exclusion of SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood and the unconfirmed attendance of David Cameron.

The Prime Minister was likewise challenged to a digital debate, hosted by The Telegraph, The Guardian and YouTube, but only with the leaders of Labour, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Greens.

While the shift is there, it has not been pushed far enough into the mainstream to make digital the default format for how British democracy is conducted. Indeed, the decision of the media regular Ofcom to deny the Greens the status of  “major party” makes the shift an immediate necessity.

We must ensure all parties are represented at all times. Any party, whether it be their inaugural or hundredth election, has the potential to sweep the board or lose it all. Predicating and justifying which party receives representation in traditional TV debates based on the determination of a government agency is a dangerous route to take.

For the time being, we will need to be settle for two seven-way TV debates hosted by Sky News and Channel 4. Looking ahead to 2020, we should worry less about trying to fit everyone in and worry more about making sure that we do.