General election 2024 debates: what do Britons want?

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
May 28, 2024, 4:31 PM GMT+0

To watch England or Scotland play instead…

News emerged today that Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer have already agreed in principle to take part in one debate, on ITV next week.

The Conservatives had initially been pushing for six TV debates – one for each week of the campaign – while Labour preferred two: one on the BBC and another on ITV.

However, new YouGov polling shows that only one in three Britons say they are interested in watching election debates (33%), compared to 63% who feel they have better things to do.

Given the limited public enthusiasm for debates, it is no surprise that only a hard core of 4% want to see more than five TV debates like the Conservatives are pitching. Instead, Britons are more likely to say that three debates (17%) or two debates (16%) would be the most appropriate. A further 13% say there shouldn’t be any at all.

The details of the ITV debate suggest it will be a head to head between Sunak and Starmer, but previous election campaigns saw debates with as many as seven party leaders. Our results show a very clear preference for an expanded format – of those who said there should be at least one debate, fully 81% said that they should include other party leaders, rather than just being the Conservative and Labour leaders (17%).

Asked which leaders specifically should be invited, top of the list by some margin is Lib Dem leader Ed Davey, at 63% of those who say the debates should feature more than just the Labour and Tory leaders. He is followed by Reform UK leader Richard Tice on 44%, SNP leader John Swinney on 40%, and one or both of the Green co-leaders Carla Denyer and Adrian Ramsay (also 40%). Plaid Cymru leader Rhun ap Iorwerth comes lowest, with only 31% nominating him to attend.

How much of a difference do leadership debates make?

The ‘Cleggmania’ of 2010 is the only truly standout example of TV debates making a big difference on voting intention at election time. Nevertheless, the public tends to think that debate leaders’ performances do tend to have a notable impact on their parties’ performances at the election. While only 6% think they have “a great deal” of impact, a further 41% believe they have “a fair amount of impact” on the eventual result. By contrast, 35% think they make little to no difference.

Expectations: how good do Britons think Sunak and Starmer are at debating?

Given his background as a lawyer, Keir Starmer may on the face of things be the better equipped of the two leaders for a debate. The public seems to agree – 46% of Britons say they think Starmer would be good in TV debates, compared to 36% who say the same of Sunak.

It is not only each other that the two party leaders might have to contend with. This general election campaign coincides with the early stages of Euro 2024, and while it is unlikely that any network would schedule their debate to coincide with an England game, it does raise the question – which would Britons rather watch if the two were on at the same time?

Alas for the two party leaders, only a quarter of Britons (24%) would prefer to tune in to see them tussle. By contrast, one in three (35%) would rather watch England or Scotland play, while a further 37% say they wouldn’t watch either.

See the full results here

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Photo: Getty