Paul Linford: If voters wants to see the leaders debate each other at the election, then they probably will

Journal columnist Paul Linford says the other party leaders should call David Cameron's bluff. If they do so, the public will be behind them

Ken McKay / ITV The first election debate live - Thursday 15 April 2010
The first election debate live - Thursday 15 April 2010

When, five years ago, the three main party leaders lined up for three televised debates in successive weeks, most assumed it would be the shape of things to come for British general election campaigns.

The debates dominated the 2010 proceedings to such an extent that much of the day-to-day politicking we had come to associate with general elections – the carefully-managed photo ops, the morning press conferences, the campaign battle buses – were forgotten.

It has since become political orthodoxy that, in giving Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg a platform he had hitherto lacked, the TV debates helped boost the Lib Dem vote to the point where the Tories were denied an outright majority, thereby ushering in five years of Coalition government.

So it’s hardly surprising that Mr Cameron appears to be intent on ensuring that, far from providing the template for future British general election battles, the 2010 campaign is remembered rather as the exception that proved the rule.

To be fair to the Prime Minister for a moment, he is not, in fact, the first incumbent of 10 Downing Street to seek to deny his opponents the chance to cross swords on the small screen.

It is now more than 50 years since Sir Alec Douglas-Home rejected Harold Wilson’s request for a TV debate in 1964, while more recently, John Major rejected a similar request from Neil Kinnock in 1992 as did Tony Blair when so entreated by William Hague in 2001.

What was different about 2010 was that the serving Prime Minister – Gordon Brown – was so far behind in the pre-election opinion polls that he had little to lose – and potentially much to gain - by agreeing to the debates.

With the polls much more evenly balanced this time round, there is much less of an incentive for the incumbent to take the risk.

BBC political editor Nick Robinson summed up the Prime Minister’s thinking thus: “He decided long ago that the debates at the last election had sucked the life out of the campaign and given a boost to his opponents.

“His chances of staying in Downing Street depend on squeezing the UKIP vote, so he’s unwilling to do anything that gives Nigel Farage a boost.”

The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley put it even more starkly, claiming that Mr Cameron had set out to sabotage the debate proposals from the start and describing the chances of one happening as “somewhere between zilch and nada.”

But what these pundits are perhaps ignoring is that, in a democracy, it’s the voters who ultimately decide, and my view for what it’s worth is that if the voters want the leaders’ debates to happen, there’s still a good chance that they will.

So, what should happen now? Well, to begin with, the other three parties need to call Mr Cameron’s bluff and invite Green Party leader Natalie Bennett to take part in the debates.

If, as I suspect, the real reason the Prime Minister is reluctant to take part is because he fears Mr Farage will do what he did to Nick Clegg during last year’s Euro-elections, then this will surely flush him out.

Second, space needs to be found within the format for a ‘devolved’ leaders’ debates for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland which recognise not just the multi-party nature of politics in the UK as a whole but the differing patterns of party politics in its constituent parts.

So for instance while UKIP and the Greens certainly deserve to be on the podium in England, the situation is less clear-cut in Scotland and Wales where the SNP and Plaid Cymru respectively have “major party” status.

But thirdly and finally, the UK media needs to show a bit of enterprise and a willingness to utilise the technology at their disposal to ensure that the debates take place in some form.

Just as we now live in a multi-party political system, we also live in a multi-channel, multi-platform media world, and there are other ways to broadcast an election debate than via the established TV networks.

Two national newspapers have already tried to put together plans for an online debate, and if a wider consortium of national and regional media were to get behind this, it would possibly stand a better chance of success.

In the final analysis, if the public demand for these debates is there, it is incumbent on us as journalists to make them happen – whatever the Prime Minister may think.

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