In recent days there have been a lot of insults being thrown around in the general direction of the Prime Minister, David Cameron. No, for once, it is not to do with any of his economic policies but his insistence that he only takes part in one seven-way TV debate at some point during the week after next (23rd March onwards).
Now, the future Prime Minister (or so he hopes), Ed Miliband, has proposed that we eradicate the possibility that a PM can shirk leaders debates that ‘Britain deserves and expects’- an Act of Parliament that would enforce attendance at such debates on the Prime Minister and other party leaders. This I will hereafter refer to as the Leaders Debates Act 2015 (LDA). But is this a step too far, is this transforming our democracy into something else? After all, the founding principle of any democratic nation is the freedoms we enjoy, and the freedom to make choices, to a certain extent.
Ed Miliband plans to create this requirement by making the body that currently negotiates the terms of TV Debates a statutory trust. They will then decide on issues such as timings and venues as authorised by the LDA.
I am hesitant to support the idea that if the PM chooses, or any other party leader for that matter, to not attend a debate that (s)he should be in breach of the LDA and thus have to face civil or even an absurd criminal sanction. This is crossing a fine line between democracy and totalitarianism. Don’t misconstrue what I am saying, I do believe that the British people deserve to participate in a debate involving all parties and to be fully informed of the choices that they have, but to make this a legal requirement under the LDA is unnecessary. There is no law in the western world (that I know of) that imposes this obligation.
I say that a legal requirement under LDA to attend debates in unnecessary because to not stand by your opponent’s side, to effectively give your challenger 90-120 minutes of airtime, on their own, to sell their manifesto, seems like a very damaging stance to take. Labour isn’t smelling of roses, no party is in this age of coalitions and hung parliament, but with 8 weeks to go until polling day those precious minutes on the air could change the minds of floating voters and push them over the required majority.
It is also necessary to take into account the schedule of the Prime Minister, something that the LDA would have to provide for. For example, during emergency situations that develop rapidly the PM’s focus should be on ensuring Britain’s security- not attending a debate. Another question is who exactly is behind this trust and are they impartial in dividing up airtime between the parties?
Ed Miliband has some great ideas, from apprenticeships to the NHS, Housing to Welfare & Jobs to Defence but this notion of legalising debates is one that is unworkable, undemocratic and downright absurd, even though his heart is in the right place. Ed should focus on using these 8 weeks and the airtime that he has, with or without Cameron by his side on April 30, to convince a disillusioned Britain that Labour can deliver on its promises and can deliver a fair and balanced Britain.
Don’t forget, you can tune into the debates on the following days:
April 2: Seven-way debate with David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage, Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood.
April 16: Second Seven-way debate with David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage, Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood.
April 30: Head to head with David Cameron and Ed Miliband (if he turns up that is).