Last year, saw the introduction of the first ever televised election debates in the UK. It featured the three perceived main parties of the time, and proved to be somewhat influential, as well as taking in an impressive haul of twenty-two million viewers, sending a strong message that this was a powerful way to engage the public, and subsequently, voters. The debate proved to be a servant to democracy, as it allowed the Liberal Democrats an opportunity to be heard, and Nick Clegg seized that opportunity with both hands – boosting his parties ratings in polls (by ITV/ComRes) by fourteen percent after the debate. Whatever your opinion on the TV election debates may be, it is an undeniable truth that it was influencial in the creation of the coalition that has been running our country since.
So, the televised debates certainly appear to have some level of influence over who takes that coveted spot in the countries most illustrious number ten. They provide an excellent platform for leaders of parties not in the spotlight as the countries current reigning party to bring their ideas to the table, and for them to lay said ideas out in a way that would engage the public.
More than that though, it allows other parties to challenge each other directly, the way the public would like to. When you see a politician voice the concerns over their opponents ideas, policies, manifesto – you adopt the age old mentality “The enemy of my enemy, is my friend.”. Then of course, as is the nature of debate, the opposition can defend themselves right there on the spot. Answers are more convincing when they aren’t presented in speeches that have been prepared, tweaked, and perfected over time.
So in essence, the televised election debates are the embodiment, of the free discourse that is essential to maintaining democracy. That is not to say that a free discourse is impossible without the TV election debates, but that they are a fine symbol of it, and should be respected as such.
Yet, Prime Minister David Cameron, a man who led the charge for the debates to be held when he was the opposition back in 2010, seems to disagree. He is aware of the position of power that he holds – as the current PM, what he has to say carries weight, and without him, the debates might seem incomplete, or be seen as amateurish to not include the man that the public elected to represent them.
But in spite of this, I think it would be the right decision to empty chair him. David Cameron insists that he is not scared of the debates, despite recent proposals that his head-to-head debate with labour party leader, Ed Miliband, be cancelled, and that he only take part in a seven way debate between other various parties.
While the inclusion of smaller parties is commendable, and encourages the free discourse mentioned above, it is crucial that there is a debate representative of the publics interests – realistically, a seven way debate would end the way any passionate argument would with a group of you and six friends – many of you would squabble, voices would be raised, and the mixing pot of opinions and points would be lost in the storm, nothing of value would be gained, and much like the argument with your friends, no one would of questioned the stand point they entered the debate with.
But coming to central point of this article – should the prime minister be empty chaired at these debates?
Yes. He should. As the leader of the opposition, it was a sound political move to call for televised election debates back in 2010. It worked somewhat in his favour, with labour reaping the least benefits of the debate, while the conservatives and liberal democrats gained something from them.
David Cameron fears what he has created, a tool that allows the opposition to be heard, and for he himself to have to answer to both the opposition, and the public. To simply stamp his foot and declare that he shall not show up, to attempt to dictate what the public get to hear during the election campaign because he believes that it is unnecessary? That is a dangerous precedent to set against free discourse, and if the Prime Minister decides that the debates do not serve his purpose, then the broadcasters ought to consider that such views should not be present in this years TV debates, and allow the other proposed debates go ahead without him.