Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Televised debates

For the first time in Britain, the leaders of all three parties will participate in a televised debate with each other, during the general election campaign.

Fairness dictates that Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, takes part in all three debates and fairness further ensures that the three debates are shown on three different television channels: ITV, Sky and the BBC.

The decision to hold these debates raise various questions about how we do politics.

Constitutional implications

The convention of our unwritten constitution is that the voters elect a party to govern. That party chooses a leader and that leader becomes the prime minister if the party wins. Everyone knows that whoever is leader of the party at the time of the election is the candidate for PM but supposedly we are not voting for an individual.

If the leader was ousted after the election, many would argue it is outrageous that the electorate went to the polls and voted for one leader and got another.

We also know that when we pick a party to vote for the personality and attributes of the leader plays a part in the decision. For some it may play the largest part.

Despite all that we don't have a presidential system in the UK.

The more we focus on the leaders, arguably as the voice of their party and the propositions in that party's manifesto, the more we reinforce the idea of a presidential system of government.

I am not saying the debates in themselves will lead to that. There has always been a focus on the leader but it does appear to be a growing trend to focus on the leader and not the party. And the power of the leader has built up over the last three or four decades.

Whether one sees this as good or bad, a serious threat or not, isn't my point. My point is, it is something we should be aware of and think about.

Perhaps it is time we decided if we would rather a more presidential system and how that would work. And if don't want it, what needs to happen to prevent it.

The leader of the third party is in all three debates

The main contenders for the job of prime minister are Gordon Brown and David Cameron. While the Liberal Democrats will go into the election on the basis that they would like to form the next government, the polls tell us this is unlikely. They may participate in some sort of coalition or play a significant part shaping legislation if a minority government comes to power but barring a seismic shift they will not become the next government of Britain.

Given that, should Nick Clegg be in all three debates? He leads the largest third party in the country. He represents parliamentarians as well as local councillors who run local authorities. But by allowing him the opportunity to debate with the other candidates are the television stations distorting the voters' intentions or reflecting their wishes?

Partisan views will distort the answer. And even if the answer affirms one's own position, it is something that needs to be properly thought through.

There will be winners and losers

There is already a debate about who will be the winners and losers.

The TV stations will be competing for audience share and PR after each debate.

The leaders will hope to outdo each other and promote their cause.

But until we watch the debates and see how each candidate does, we won't really know who the winners and losers are.

There is a scene in one of the episodes of 'Mad Men' when the ad execs are discussing supporting a presidential candidate.

One says something like: "He is good looking, fought in world war two...". Then we get the punchline. The candidate they are discussing is not the winner of the election, JFK, but Richard Nixon. A candidate who might have had everything going for him except that fact he came across badly on television.

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