With the bell still ringing from round 1 of the Nick vs. Nigel debates, Nick Garland of Freshwater Public Affairs looks at the role of televised debates in politics in anticipation of the impending round 2...
So, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage are going head-to-head in two debates (one TV, one radio) over Britain’s future in the EU. The leader of the Liberal Democrats, the “party of in” vs. the leader of UKIP and the face of British euroscepticism. With May’s European elections fast approaching and the 2015 General Election just around the corner, what difference do TV debates really make?
Televised debates have become a regular fixture of American election races, first taking place in 1960 when John F. Kennedy faced Richard Nixon in a series of debates that swung the Presidential race in JFK’s favour. Having previously been just behind in the polls, Kennedy emerged from the first debate just ahead of Nixon before going on to win one of the closest elections to date. Fast-forward fifty years to 2010 and the leaders of the UK’s three major political parties took part in three debates in the run up to the General Election, but did they affect the outcome?
While polls conducted after the debates had the Liberal Democrats as the biggest winners of the televised exchanges, significantly cutting Tory and Labour margins, when compared to the election result just a week later it is clear something had changed in the minds of the electorate. This could have been down to the parties failing to effectively capitalise on the impact of the debates, or that the debates did not impact voting intentions as much as the polls suggested. In fact, a 2008 survey from American pollsters Gallup found that only the 1960 and 2000 debates swung the Presidential race enough to turn poll deficits into a seat in the Oval Office.
Perhaps instead the focus should therefore be on the role debates have on informing the electorate. After all, the 2010 General Election debates were certainly successful in engaging with young first-time voters. Televised debates open up the political landscape to the electorate, offering them an opportunity to judge the candidates and ultimately help to better inform their decisions without having to trawl through manifestos. Debates might therefore have the potential to increase voting turnout, thus improving electoral representation (which must only be a good thing).
In some ways debates are the ultimate form of stakeholder communications, with candidates trying to sell both themselves and their party’s policies to the electorate. The Nick vs. Nigel TV debate should hopefully cast a greater spotlight on the upcoming European elections, particularly given that one poll found 82% of Brits know little or nothing about the EU; potentially also having far-reaching consequences should an ‘In-Out’ referendum over the UK’s membership of the EU ever come to fruition. They force leaders to engage in real political dialogue and whilst, agreement has not yet been reached on whether we will see debates on our screens for next year’s General Election, their role should not be underestimated. Let’s take a leaf out of America’s book and use the platform to better inform ourselves with the often confusing and sometimes intimidating world of politics – it’s for our own good.
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