This note sets out the background to the current debate about televised debates between party leaders during a general election campaign. Three debates were held for the first time in the UK during the 2010 general election. The BBC, ITV News, Sky News and Channel 4 have put forward proposals to change the format of the televised leaders’ debates to be held before the 2015 general election.Jump to full report >>
Televised election debates between party leaders took place during the 2010, 2015 and 2017 Parliamentary general elections campaigns. In the 2017 debate the Prime Minister, Theresa May, did not take part; the Conservative Party was represented by Amber Rudd MP, then Home Secretary.
There is nothing in electoral law that requires televised election debates between party leaders. If they take place they are a matter for the broadcasters and political parties.
Before 2010 the UK was considered unusual in developed democracies in not holding televised debates between party leaders during general election campaigns. Contrasts were often made with practices in the United States, where leader debates are well established.
It was not until the 1997 election that there was a real prospect of a debate, when it appeared that the Prime Minister, John Major, was interested in an encounter with the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Blair. However, discussions collapsed without an agreement.
In subsequent years there has been much debate about debates. In 2010, broadcasters and the three main parties reached agreement to hold three head-to-head televised debates between the party leaders, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg.
Although there were complaints that the debates dominated the campaign and overshadowed local campaigning, there was a perception that they were useful and an expectation that they might become a permanent feature of the election process.
However, the negotiations in 2015 were protracted and it was hard to find consensus. The political landscape in 2015 was different to that of 2010, with more parties laying claim to enough electoral support to warrant being included in any debates. Eventually proposals were agreed between the parties and broadcasters, but they featured only one head-to-head debate between the Prime Minister, David Cameron, with other party leaders.
The Liberal Democrats were the only party to include a commitment to televised debates in their 2017 General Election manifesto saying they would “Mandate the provision of televised leaders’ debates in general elections based on rules produced by Ofcom relating to structure and balance and allowing for the empty-chairing of party leaders who refuse to attend.”
During discussions that led to the 2015 debates both Labour and the DUP suggested that an independent commission should be set to put the debates on a statutory footing. The Government responded that it was appropriate for broadcasters and parties to make arrangements for any such debates and that this was not a matter for the Government.
An e-petition on creating an independent commission to organise compulsory televised leaders’ debates attracted enough signatures for it to be debated in Parliament in Westminster Hall on 7 January 2019. The Government reiterated its view that whether such debates should take place should remain a matter of agreement between political parties and broadcasters and that electoral law should not make them compulsory.
Commons Briefing papers SN05241
Author: Neil Johnston