To debate, or not to debate?: Corbyn challenges Cameron.

One of my closest friends tagged me in a post on Facebook, particularly one pertaining to current affairs, as we are wont to do to each other. This one however was particularly interesting, as it reads like the proverbial gauntlet throw-down by Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn to Prime Minister David Cameron. Corbyn has openly called on Cameron to take part in an annual ‘state of the nation’ televised debate. My first thoughts were: a) oh please, not another televised debates row, and b) since when did we decided to emulate US politics, and adopt essentially the State of the Union address? To address both of these, allow me to harken back to a few months ago.

During my second semester studying in America, I was fortunate to study Public Relations with an inspirational and experienced professor. In between writing weekly response papers to develop our understanding of the theory and development of PR, our professor also tasked us with practical assignments, such as speech-writing and drafting our own press releases. My favourite task however was writing and recording a podcast on a topic of our choosing, providing it had something to do with PR. Myself being myself, I opted to cover something political, and eventually selected the debacle that was the row over the televised debates in the UK in the lead-up to the May 2015 General Election. (Should you be so inclined, you can access the transcript of the finished product here.)

I may have been several thousand miles away at the time, but thanks to the internet and social media, I was regularly kept informed about the heated battle between David Cameron, Ed Miliband and the major broadcasters. Cameron proposed in strict terms that there would be one single debate involving leaders from seven political parties. (Seven egos arguing for ninety minutes? Now that was a clever political move, skilfully preventing any real opposing message to the Conservative Party’s manifesto from being heard.) Unsurprisingly, Cameron’s terms were rejected by the parties and broadcasters alike, who insisted on three debates. Cameron, quelle surprise, refused. The result was a ‘war of words’ gleefully covered by the Press.  I remember being rather amazed that the Tory PR machine was allowing the debate to make the headlines everyday. Perhaps the Conservatives were hoping this presented Cameron as steadfast in his refusal to change his strict proposal for televised debates, the heir of Thatcher’s infamous ‘this lady’s not for turning’ slogan. Perhaps. But I also thought it ran the risk of tarnishing his image in the minds of floating voters, making him appear weak and unwilling to compromise or engage with the electorate on the eve of the closest election in recent years.

The general gist of my podcast was that Cameron had made a mistake in allowing the row to drag out, not to mention actually picking a fight with major broadcasters. By insisting on only one major televised debate, and with all the major party leaders in tow (and yes, I was also kept fully informed about the angry stance taken by the DUP at being excluded from the debate), Cameron ran the risk of being branded cowardly, of shielding himself and his party’s record in government behind other parties and restricted airtime. He shot himself in the foot somewhat, as he was open to accusations of dismissing accountability and scrutiny – which Miliband hounded him with during PMQs. Moreover,  Cameron shot himself in the other foot with his behaviour in refusing to accept the media’s terms – this alienated the four major broadcasters in the UK. As I said in my podcast at the time:

Cameron as the incumbent PM could seek solace in the sympathy of the media, who do traditionally tend to gloss over any cracks for PMs during election time. But his behaviour in refusing to accept the media’s terms has alienated the four major broadcasters in the UK. Torie Clarke has commented on the need to work with the media to ensure successful communications and Cameron should have listened to her. Instead of softening the blows for Cameron, the broadcasters are increasing them by reporting on the debate crisis with each news cycle, meaning the public has increased exposure to negative comments about Cameron, which will influence their thoughts… And potentially their voting behaviour.

As we know, Cameron eventually got his away. The broadcasters eventually agreed to his proposals, and the debate proceeded as planned. The pollsters, who had spent months predicting a hung Parliament were left redfaced as the Conservatives wound up the victors. Cameron remained in No. 10, now the Prime Minister of a Conservative majority government. We can therefore suggest that the row over the televised debates seemingly did not harm Cameron or his party.

In fact, evidence suggests that the televised debate (when it finally went ahead) was a success with the electorate. Leeds University conducted research which found that the televised debates, far from alienating the electorate, actually had an overwhelmingly positive effect on voter engagement.

The debates increased viewers’ interest in politics by 30 percent with almost half viewers saying prior to watching, they were “not very interested” in politics. In addition, 70 percent of viewers said they now knew ‘more about what the party leaders were like’, whilst three-fifths said they now knew ‘more about some of the policies that were being put forward’. Consequently, the research concluded that televised election debates have a significant impact on voters’ decision making, and thus ‘should become part of the fabric of major political events’. And so Corbyn has taken his cue.

By challenging Cameron to take part in an annual, televised debate between national party leaders (which suggests the DUP will be excluded once more. Thought c) oh please, not another DUP exclusion tantrum) Corbyn is hoping to tap into the newly-found support for televised debates amongst the electorate. He believes that ‘no political leader should shrink from the chance to engage more fully with the public’ and they should be prepared to test their arguments and de facto defend their decisions in live, public debates.

In scenes eerily reminiscent of the May 2015 row, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon and Lib Dem leader Tim Farron have stated they would endorse Corbyn’s plan and take part in such a debate, should Cameron agree. Perhaps foreseeing a repeat of the headache suffered months ago, Downing Street said it would ‘look at the formal details of any proposal’.

Corbyn’s Facebook account posted:

I am challenging the Prime Minister to an annual televised ‘state of the nation’ debate of the party leaders.

People are entitled to know more about their political leaders and to have their government held to account by the elected opposition in every way possible.

It is crucial that the Prime Minister and Government are held to account, both inside and outside Parliament, throughout their period in office – not just at election time.

Bringing politics to the people.

Corbyn chose his words carefully, emphasising how this challenge was his way of representing the people’s wishes. But there can be no doubt that this challenge benefits himself, too. Proposing this televised debate enables him to build upon the wave of popular support during his election campaign. He would be able to gain more screen-time for himself and his views, without the looming threat of bickering Labour backbenchers, or his divided shadow cabinet. He and he alone of his party will be able to engage more directly with the electorate, knowing that his personal appeal was what stood out during the dragged-out Labour leadership election. He has a track record of performing well during televised debates, and hopes to use this to both his personal and political advantage.

What about the Prime Minister’s position? As I mentioned previously, the danger of rejecting taking part in such a debate is that you are perceived to be rejecting accountability, and democracy too to some extent. Should Cameron reject these proposals, knowing that Corbyn and to some extent the other leaders stand to gain more than himself from participating, he runs the risk of criticism. His track record happens to be of attempting to evade televised debates. He will have to tread carefully on this challenge, but as Prime Minister he has more power at his disposal. And he did eventually win the fight regarding the sole televised debate.

Personally, I am divided on the proposal. For all the appeal of Corbyn’s words – ‘bringing politics to the people’ and so on – the fact is we already do witness televised debates on a weekly basis, where politicians are held to account. I am of course talking about PMQs.

Now, I am not saying that PMQs is perfect, seeing how planted questions are rampant, government praise inevitable and there is restricted time for follow-up questions. But it is something, and it is available for the public to watch every Wednesday. What happened to Corbyn’s plan to reform PMQs? Does he feel that this is not working? Perhaps he wants to propose something bolder. My perception is of a leader who starts multiple projects at once and has so far completed none. Moreover, it feels as though he is trying to appease the public, or rather the newly-emboldened Labour grassroots activists who elected him in the first place.

I cannot help but feel that we may run the risk of political apathy should we insist on adopting events more associated with, and indeed suitable for, American politics. Yes, the public watched the General Election debates and the evidence shows political engagement increased as a result. But should we not consider the possibility that people watched because it was a novelty, and something new? Should we therefore not consider that maybe with regular televised debates, the novelty will wear off?

Politics is already too much about the personality of politicians. Just look at how quickly other party leaders endorsed the proposal of a televised debate, aka screen-time for themselves. Do we really wish to increase it further yet? I cannot speak for anyone but myself, so I will say that whilst this sounds like a bold and exciting proposal, I fear it will only serve to place politicians and their personalities before the very people they should serve.



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