If there were set rules governing participation in TV debates, rows wouldn't happenby Peter Kellner / January 16, 2015 / Leave a comment
Don’t blame David Cameron; at least not completely. Of course he is trying to avoid taking part in any leaders’ television debates; of course his passion for fairness for the Greens is as shallow as it is sudden. But the broadcasters could have made it harder for him to wriggle.
As it happens, I think their proposal makes a lot of sense: Nigel Farage taking part in one debate, Nick Clegg in two and Cameron and Ed Miliband in all three. What they failed to do was create a clear set of criteria from which they derived this arrangement.
America’s experience is instructive. The first TV debates were held in 1960, between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. They were followed by a sixteen-year lull. Only since 1976 have debates been a regular fixture. Today it would be unthinkable for them not to take place.
One reason why they are now accepted is that a clear formula has been established, and applied at every presidential election since 1988. No major candidate would dare challenge it. The formula, nowadays administered by a private, independent organisation, the Commission on Presidential Debates, has two main components. To take part in the debates, a candidate must (a) appear on the ballot paper in enough states to have a theoretical chance of winning 270 electoral college votes and therefore winning the election; and (b) enjoy at least 15 per cent support according to an average of recent opinion polls. (It was under this 15 per cent rule that Ross Perot took part in the 1992 debates, as a third-force candidate.)
What we need in Britain is an equivalent set of rules, set well in advance of a general election. Here’s my suggestion. There should be three tests. Each test passed qualifies for participation in one debate. Pass all three and the party’s leader takes part in all three.
1. Past performance: at least 10 per cent support across Britain at the previous general election 2. National appeal: MPs in at least half of the UK’s standard regions (ie. At least seven regions out of 12) 3. Current support: at least 10 per cent support in Britain as a whole in an average of opinion polls conducted in January of election year.
As it happens, this formula would generate the proposal that the broadcasters have made, with Ukip qualifying for one debate (it passes test no. 3), the Lib Dems for two (tests 1 and 2) and Labour and the Conservatives for all three. It would also have produced the three Brown/Clegg/Cameron debates in 2010, as the Lib Dems were more popular then than they are today.
My broad point, however, is not that my formula is perfect. People may legitimately propose alternative criteria; and there is plainly a need for rules governing extra debates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, my formula is precise and capable of being applied objectively. Any party leader trying to avoid appearing would have to propose a specific alternative. (Eg if Cameron wanted to include the Greens, he would have to make the case for a lower polling threshold.)
It’s probably too late to rescue TV debates in time for this spring. Cameron has clearly set his face against taking part. The only way to flush him out would be for the broadcasters to threaten to go ahead without him and show an empty podium. He might then feel that taking part would do him less harm than staying away and looking ridiculous. But I doubt whether the broadcasters would make that threat.
So let’s learn the lesson and prevent the same messy arguments next time. If the broadcasters (and Ofcom?) could agree a clear, precise formula early in the new parliament, then the arguments and any revisions could be thrashed out well ahead of the following election. Then, as in the US, once a formula has bedded down, the room for party leaders to evade them will be much diminished, and TV debates can become a permanent feature of future elections.