Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Whose heads?

There's been some debate recently as to whether the UK should ape the US approach of having head to head debates between the party leaders in the run-up to the general election. The reaction from the party leaders has been pretty predictable – oppositions always support the idea; the incumbents always reject it.

I'm far from convinced about the idea myself. It's not simply the fact that my own party is likely to be excluded, although I cannot deny that that is a factor – and a special 'Welsh' debate is hardly the same thing. Even leaving that issue aside, I still have major doubts.

In the first place, I think that the US debates are somewhat over-rated. The early ones, Nixon-Kennedy, say, were quite dramatic, and people remember that. But in recent years, those taking part have been coached, scripted, and rehearsed to such an extent that the debates have become pretty meaningless in reality. It's more a comparison of acting skills than of fitness for office.

Secondly, there is a real question over who should take part. In the US, they are electing a president – the head of government. The US is very much a two-party system – in the legislature as well as in the presidential contest - so it is easy to reduce the field to two contenders. A UK general election, on the other hand, is about electing the whole legislature, not just the Prime Minister, and there is an increasing plurality of parties.

It might be fairly easy to predict that the next prime minister will be one of two people – but it's a lot less easy to be certain about the make-up of the House of Commons. There's an argument that only the two obvious contenders should take part, but the very act of doing that would be to polarise attention on just two of the parties contesting the election, and to marginalise others – and that gives an unfair advantage to those two parties.

In theory, the leader of any party contesting more than half the seats in the House of Commons could end up as PM, however unlikely that might seem. Should broadcasters be allowed to 'second-guess' the result and exclude them – and if so, on what basis? And it isn't just the Lib Dems who are likely to be in that position.

If the election of a government was a separate matter from the election of the legislature, I might come to a different view; but as long as the government is drawn from the legislature, the introduction of such 'debates' would serve to change the nature of politics in a way which favours two parties in particular. And I really don't like the way in which one broadcaster is trying to force the issue.

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