By Clara Gaspar
A new era of ‘television politics’ was marked by the first televised presidential debates between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960. Since then, such television debates have constituted a fundamental feature of US politics and are widely deemed to be highly influential in the outcome of elections. The first French presidential debate was in 1974, and has similarly been a major political event ever since, exemplified by Macron’s apparent victory in his final confrontation with Le Pen. However, televised leaders’ debates have a shorter history in UK politics, with the first live debate taking place in April 2010.
On a populist level, television debates do indeed have the potential to play an important role in engaging voters, and on that basis alone, it could be argued that they have a place in general elections. Over 50% of young people, and a third of the general public said that live debates helped them to make up their minds on voting in the 2015 election. However, our current debate format is nothing but a high-profile soundbite opportunity. For this election, I doubt the British public needs to hear the words ‘strong and stable’ repeated on TV.
In the past decade, our politics has become increasingly presidential, as we place higher levels of importance on the personality and charisma of our leaders, rather than the party as a whole. The 2015 election displayed the negative aspect of television debates, illustrated by Jeremy Paxman’s on-screen antagonisms, which focused more on personal attacks than constructive discussion of policies. The opportunity for real dissection of policy was stifled by inane questions about Ed Miliband being perceived as a ‘North London geek.’ This form of television debate between leaders just affirms our burgeoning obsession with the personality of our leaders, in place of rigorous examination of social and economic policy.
Of course, accountability is key to any functioning democracy, but we must remember that we live in a parliamentary democracy. Our party leaders are just that: representatives of their party, rather than presidential candidates and we must treat them as such. Many have argued that television debates are good for engaging young voters in elections, but is this really the sort of engagement we should strive for as a country? Low level interest in the rhetorical abilities of party leaders and shallow examination of headline policies is better than nothing, but it is not sufficient to shore up a true democracy.
By no means am I suggesting that May is refusing to partake in television debates due to a fundamental disapproval of the debate format. It is clearly a tactical move on her part. However, the wholly negative style of questioning, combined with a focus on personality rather than substance, means she has very little to gain from appearing on television. So, unless the quality of TV debates changes, it is excusable for May to stay away.
Photograph: United Press International via Wikimedia Commons