Who should take part in TV election debates?

Peter KellnerPresident
October 07, 2013, 5:00 AM GMT+0

The head of Sky News has said Nigel Farage should be excluded from debates in 2015. Voters think differently.

Once again, Sky News has taken the lead. It spearheaded the broadcasters’ successful campaign to secure leader’s debates in the 2010 general election. Now John Riley, head of Sky News, has proposed a formula for debates in 2015. His main proposal is that Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, should be excluded.

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According to Mr Riley, writing in last Saturday’s Times, his involvement ‘could be a deal breaker for the main party leaders and would be unjustified given that his party polled only 3% three years ago and has no MPs’.

Voters think differently. A YouGov poll for The Times posed three options:

Straight debates between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, as they are the only two leaders who stand any realistic chance of becoming Prime Minister – 14%

Three-way debates, like last time, between the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders, as these are the only three parties with MPs from all parts of Britain – 23%

Four-way debates, to include Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, as UKIP is now more popular than the Lib Dems and plans to fight the great majority of seats in 2015 – 49%

Don’t know – 14%

Obviously UKIP supporters are almost unanimous in wanting Mr Farage to take part; but so do 52% of Conservative supporters, 43% of Liberal Democrats and 37% of Labour voters. However, Mr Riley is almost certainly right when he says that the other party leaders are unlikely to roll over and agree. We could end up as we used to do in every election up to 2005. The reason why Britain never had leaders’ TV debates before 2010 was that at least one party leader – usually the Prime Minister of the day – decided it was against their interest.

Mr Riley has attempted to solve the Farage problem by saying now, 18 months before the 2015 campaign, that UKIP’s leader should be excluded. However, if UKIP comes top in next May’s elections to the European Parliament, and continues to rival, or outscore, the Lib Dems in the polls, our figures suggest that this position is likely to look unfair to millions of voters, well beyond UKIP’s ranks.

Two problems arise. One is that there are at least three defensible ways to decide who should take part; the second is that we lack an independent arbiter to choose which should apply. The three positions are those implied by the options in our survey.

Option 1: limit the debate to the party leaders who have any realistic chance of becoming either prime minister of leader of the opposition. A sensible qualification would be 100 MPs at the previous election and/or polling support of at least 20% at the start of election year. This would have excluded the leader of the Liberal Democrats at most recent elections.

Option 2: allow the leaders of all parties with MPs in most regions of the UK, and selected candidates in the great majority of constituencies. This would include the Liberal Democrats but exclude UKIP.

Option 3: Include any party with (say) 10% polling support and candidates in most constituencies. On current poll ratings, this would include UKIP.

Ideally, the ‘winning’ option would emerge from a serious, adult debate about the purpose of the debates. In reality, as things stand, any deal will be the result of horse-trading, calculations of self-interest, and legal advice to broadcasters on how to apply their obligation to provide balanced coverage.

Here, then, is a suggestion to cut through all that. Britain should copy the United States. Or, to be more precise, copy what happened in the US when their system settled down.

The first TV debates were held in 1960, between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Sixteen years then elapsed before agreement was reached to hold any further debates. Now they are a permanent fixture, and the fundamental decision about who should take part, is taken by an independent body, the Commission on Presidential Debates.

The CPD was established in 1987. It applies a settled formula that is now generally accepted. It includes candidates who (in the words of the CPD’s rules):

(1) are constitutionally eligible to hold the office of President of the United States;

(2) have achieved ballot access in a sufficient number of states to win a theoretical Electoral College majority in the general election; and

(3) have demonstrated a level of support of at least 15% of the national electorate, as determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations' most recent publicly-reported results.

The 15% rule meant that Ross Perot, an independent candidate, took part in the debates in 1992; at all other recent elections, the debates have been confined to the Democratic and Republican candidates.

If there were an obvious, single formula for deciding who should take part in British elections, then we should have no need for our own version of the CPD. But a perfectly good case can be made for any of the three options outlined above, not to mention variations to them (for example the number of MPs or polling percentage).

So instead of a veto, stitch-up or breakdown this time, let the party leaders agree to hand the decision to an independent organisation – for example, a group convened by the Speaker; or a freshly-appointed body created by Parliament; or an existing all-party organisation such as the Hansard Society (of which, interest declared, I am a trustee).

The debates in 2010 had huge audiences and changed the course of the campaign. If they are to continue, and I hope they do, they should be treated like any other feature of a mature democracy, and operate according to rules that are independently determined and impartially administered.

See the full YouGov / The Times results

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