General Election 2024

Election panel: What’s the point of debates?

Our team of experts on how much we learn from a head-to head

June 14, 2024
Image: Alamy Stock Photo
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

It’s election season. Prospect has invited writers and experts to an election group chat. Imagine a WhatsApp group of your most politically informed friends from across the ideological spectrum on-hand to discuss the biggest and smallest issues.

Yesterday, we asked our panellists whether Labour’s plans for government were ambitious enough.  Today, we asked them about the debates we’ve seen so far: how much do they tell us about the parties and politicians who take part?

Emily Lawford: What’s the point of debates?

Philip Collins: For Tory leadership candidates to rehearse their lines.

Matthew d’Ancona: Debates perform three functions. First, they provide punctuation marks in lengthy campaigns and can offer faux-drama when it is lacking elsewhere. Second, they are a substitute for real debate, when the parties are locked into their scripts, reassurance strategies and pledges. The shouting is confected but it fills a vacuum. Third, they are an analgesic for legacy media, a means of postponing the day when they are forced to confront the reality that politics has moved house from institutions to networks. TikTok and YouTube are much more important than any of the debates. But we still watch them.

Philip Collins: I confess I didn’t watch last night. The ratings have fallen significantly from 2010.

Frances Ryan: I’m not normally someone to complain about the Americanisation of British politics and culture but I do wonder how relevant they are to a non-presidential model. I don’t think any voter really cares about how a party leader performs, bar them accidentally swearing or falling over. Nick Clegg’s performance in 2010 is a case in point. He was judged overwhelmingly as the winner by the public and was greeted with borderline hysteria by the media at the time, largely because he managed to listen to the audience’s names and then repeat that name back to them. But in the end, it had no real impact on votes.

Peter Kellner: It depends on what you are after. If you want party leaders to explain candidly what they will do in office, respond openly to rigorous debate and fully address the trade-offs they will face (eg if higher taxes are needed to fund public services)... if you want all that, debates are completely useless. It's better when party leaders appear separately, as on Sky News this week. Beth Rigby was brilliant, not so much as extracting Sunak's and Starmer’s innermost thoughts, but showing up their evasions. However, debates can serve a purpose if they reveal the characters of the leaders. This matters because voters who make up their mind during the campaign are generally those who follow politics least, and who, consciously or unconsciously, tend to make up their minds on character more than policy. Calmness, toughness and a clear mind are important qualities in a national leader. Debates can reveal whether rivals under fire possess these qualities.

Peter Hitchens: The purpose of debates is noble. But it is frustrated by the rules of modern politics, which penalise candour. I think we might do better if the debates were held between distinguished supporters of the parties, not parliamentarians, who are not scared of committing news.

Tim Bale: They mattered the first time round, back in 2010. But they’ve become less important and less watched as time has gone on. They’re really just a risk for whoever is ahead and an opportunity for whoever is behind. But the jeopardy has declined as everyone (audience as well as participants) has got wise to how they work. Essentially, then, debates are the appendix of contemporary election campaigns—they served a purpose once upon a time but no one can quite remember nowadays what exactly it was.

Nadine Batchelor-Hunt: Most people don’t follow politics as closely as we do, so it’s largely an opportunity to see what the people who want to represent us are like. How they behave under questioning, whether they come across well, and also of course to promote the policies they’re suggesting. The seven-party debates give smaller parties a chance to communicate directly with the electorate in a way they don’t usually get to because of the focus on Labour and the Tories. Ultimately though, unless someone does something dramatically wrong (or right) on them I don’t think they have a significant impact on polling.

Marie Le Conte: I agree, or would argue that a format in which leaders are given so much time and space to speak that they can't solely rely on soundbites and focus grouped attack lines may be more revealing. Debates in their current form have little purpose.

I also think that making Rishi and Keir sit down and talk—or argue—for an hour straight would be genuinely interesting, but it obviously won't happen.