In an era of political disillusionment, finding ways to bring politicians closer to the public is not just desirable but essential for the health of our democracy. It is fair to say that TV debates are becoming an established way of doing that in the UK – and new research shows just how important voters find them.
From Cleggmania in 2010, to the seven-party platform of 2015, to the Question Time specials of 2017, millions tuned in over the past three elections to see party leaders put forward their ideas with passion and energy – and to see them held to account.
TV debates are one major focal point, and a key way of getting election debates and key policy issues heard. In May 2017, amid suggestion that neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn would be appearing in a live debate, polling for the ERS found that 56% of people believed leaders’ debates were important in helping them make their decision.
More importantly, we found that the vast majority of those with a view believe that “all major party leaders should commit to participating in televised General Election debates”. What this research suggested was that voters take the tv debates seriously – and they want party leaders to take them seriously too.
June 2017’s snap election didn’t see a full, head-to-head debate between the two main party leaders (although there was a live debate the Prime Minister did not take part in). But the BBC’s Question Time leaders’ special was the closest we got, and it too proved popular. More than four million people tuned in to see the main party leaders pitch their case and be challenged by a live audience.
In the run-up to the programme, the ERS commissioned leading academics in the field of communications and media to look at the impact of the debates on viewers. This research revealed how well TV debates deliver on citizens’ expectations of political communication (‘entitlements’ in the study).
These five expectations are that leaders ‘put their points clearly’, ‘provide factual evidence’ and ‘a clear choice’, ‘engage me in the debate’, and ‘understand people like me’. The report finds that leaders delivered on most of these expectations in the QT special.
Over a third of viewers said the Question Time election special influenced their vote. On a UK-wide level, that would amount to 1.4m voters. These figures matter when research shows the Conservatives could have won an overall majority with just 533 extra votes in the nine most marginal constituencies, while a working majority could have been achieved on just 75 additional votes in the right places.
That means small factors can have a significant effect on elections – a reflection of a broken voting system which needs replacing. But televised election debates are good for our democracy, as this report shows.
Over 80% of viewers said they talked about the QT special with their friends and family, while 40% said the programme made them more interested in the campaign.
But it was the ‘youth surge’ this election that was arguably most significant. More young people watched the entirety of the programme than older viewers, with a much higher proportion of young viewers undecided on who to vote for before seeing the QT special.
TV debates have become incredibly important for general elections in the UK. And the positive democratic legacy of the BBC’s leadership special means it’s time to make such debates a core and established part of 21st century campaigning in the UK – with party leaders expected to take part.
As this report concludes, we need to ensure citizens are ‘addressed, informed, engaged, recognised and empowered’ in ways that enable them to fully engage as a democracy.
We need a framework to be put in place so that live debates are fixed as an integral part of election campaigns. And so that any such programmes should be real head-to-head debates, open to meaningful and live challenge from opponents.
This report sets out the major impact of June’s leadership special for the first time. Now it’s time for party leaders and broadcasters to learn from voters’ views – and ensure that the debates are even better next time.
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