With only five weeks left until the General Election, it seems almost certain that we will not see any television debates. Theresa May ruled out an appearance at the start of the campaign, and, since then, Jeremy Corbyn has insisted he will only appear if the Prime Minister deigns to as well. May has been widely criticised for this move, with accusations of cowardice and dodging the public. While I understand the politics of this, I can’t help but feel relieved at the fact we won’t see any debates. In fact, it may be the only positive of this whole sorry development.
Given the furore about these debates, it’s easy to forget that the first of them was only seven years ago, during the 2010 General Election. It seems odd that, for such a recent development, some people now treat television debates as being as integral to British democracy as the Magna Carta. The great landslides of Thatcher and Blair were won without a stage-managed tete-a-tete, as were the campaigns of the Attlee government that created the NHS, and the Wilson government that decriminalised homosexuality. This idea that the absence of a televised debate prevents parties from proposing radical change is a weak one.
‘I CAN’T HELP BUT FEEL RELIEVED AT THE FACT WE WON’T SEE ANY DEBATES’
One of the great strengths of British democracy is that it is a parliamentary, not a presidential system, yet TV debates treat it as if it were the latter. We all remember ‘Cleggmania’ and the ‘Milifandom’, yet how many of us actually remember the policies of these parties from 2010/15? It is no secret that Ed Miliband was detrimental to Labour’s vote share at the last election, yet people’s opinion of the man should have had no bearing on how they viewed Labour policy, or indeed the calibre of his Shadow Cabinet.
Indeed, far from facilitating a politics where representatives are ‘held to account’ and policies are scrutinised, all TV debates actually do is reinforce the soundbite culture of modern politics. It is impossible to properly scrutinise May’s approach to Brexit, Corbyn’s approach to foreign policy or the smaller parties’ platforms in the length of a football match. Polling showed that 38% of voters said that the debates influenced their vote, but there is little to celebrate about this. Voting should, as far as possible, be an informed decision using as many sources as possible. The idea that the main effort people put into democracy is to sit in front of the TV for 90 minutes is a little disheartening.
‘Voting should, as far as possible, be an informed decision using as many sources as possible’
However, there is another reason why there’s no point in having these debates: we’ve already heard them. Let’s not kid ourselves that anything fresh or new is going to emerge from them, or that we’re going to see a serious discussion of policy. Rather, the script goes as follows:
Theresa May shoehorns ‘strong and stable leadership’ into every possible answer, regardless of how tenuous the link is. See exhibit 1:
Radio Derby to PM: Do you know what a mugwump is?
PM: What I recognise is that what we need in this country is strong and stable leadership
— Ross Hawkins (@rosschawkins) April 27, 2017
Whenever Corbyn tries to mount a counter attack, likely on school funding or the NHS, May replies: ‘Jeremy Corbyn is asking you to choose his coalition of chaos rather than strong and leadership under the Tories.’ Every so often, she mixes this up by throwing in: ‘do you trust a man who supports the IRA and Hamas with your child’s future?’
Corbyn, in turn, will repeat his (mendacious and wholly untrue) line that his dalliances with various paramilitary groups was all about seeking peace. Of course, as any good diplomat knows, the way to achieve peace is to only meet with the most extremist elements of one side, demand no concessions, laud them as friends and take them for tea on the House of Commons terrace. When May presses him on the issue, he will say: ‘I don’t think people want to hear about this, instead they want to hear about the NHS and cuts to school funding’. If we’re really lucky, he’ll throw in the ‘Bargain basement tax haven’ line, surely the worst since Ed Miliband’s gloriously atrocious ‘Hardworking Britain better off’.
As for the rest of them, Tim Farron would pull his best ‘Sorry – I’m a Lib Dem’ face, before being asked once more to hold forth on Leviticus. Caroline Lucas would likely put in a decent enough performance, but would get bogged down in arguing with Corbyn and May over the coalition of chaos/progressive alliance. Last, and least, Paul Nuttall would have to make his distinction between Muslim women and beekeepers again before elaborating on his illustrious Tranmere Rovers career/Hillsborough feats/whatever nonsense he came up with 40 minutes beforehand, as we all wait for UKIP to sink into the abyss from whence it came. A spectacle? Certainly. But a spectacle for comedy, not democracy.