In defence of party leaders’ TV debates in elections

Interesting arguments and data last night from Professor Stephen Coleman, giving the first David Butler lecture, supporting the case for continued televised leaders debates in general elections, begun last year. (You have had these already for a long time in other countries? We are a little behind here).

Coleman was taking aim at the grumbling which attested to the success of the debates. Gordon Brown, who was going to lose the election irrespective of what happened in the debates and who did not perform well in them, complained that the televised jousting “clouded” the issues. Jon Snow of Channel 4 News (who was not invited to moderate one of the debates) kvetched that the British system was turning presidential and spoiling the campaign.

These were transparently silly arguments when they were made, but Coleman demolished them with a handful of arguments and figures from some research just out from the Reuters Institute in Oxford. A selection:

  • Elections are about conversation. People make big issues easier to decide by talking to other people. The debates triggered off a lot of new conversation, both face-to-face and via social media.
  • The debates were particularly popular with first-time voters, a group whose turnout at elections has been falling.
  • One voters in three aged between 18 and 24 followed the debates on some kind of internet platform. Among other voters, that proportion was 1 in 10.
  • Democracy only works effectively when it also works affectively. As an example of how the debates successfully projected serious discussion into peoples’ homes and broke through the barrier which often separates political talk from real life, many people discussed the debates on the Jamie Oliver food site.
  • The revival of political discussion lies in a creative mixture of television and internet platforms.

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