The TV debates won't happen, so the empty podium is an empty threat

Don’t just blame Cameron, blame the broadcasters, who failed to consult the parties

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Sorry to burst the Westminster bubble, but the television debates are not going to happen and David Cameron is not going to suffer in the court of public opinion for his prudence/ cowardice (delete according to prejudice).

I may be an inhabitant of the bubble myself, but I recognise a story that is of more interest to journalists than it is to most voters. The demand for election debates is one of those. Yes, most people in opinion polls say that they should happen, and, yes, ComRes this week found that 55 per cent of people think that the Prime Minister is “cowardly” not to take part in them. But I think that few people feel strongly about them.

Margaret Thatcher refused to take part in debates with Neil Kinnock, saying that we had a parliamentary not a presidential system. Tony Blair didn’t agree to debates in 1997, when John Major, as Prime Minister, challenged him. Daniel Finkelstein, who worked for the Conservative Party then, told the story yesterday of how it was once his job to stop a chicken defecting to Labour. The Tories had the brilliant idea of hiring a man in a chicken suit to follow Blair round during the campaign, but “the more the actor saw of Mr Blair, the more he liked him”, and, fearing that “the chicken might, as it were, cross the road”, Finkelstein was deputed to dissuade him.

Finkelstein concludes that Blair was right to avoid a debate, and that he paid no price for his evasion. Naturally, he says that Cameron is right to do the same now and predicts that he won’t be damaged either.

I think he is broadly right, although the difference this time is that debates did take place in 2010. That experience, however, reinforced two points. One is that they ought to happen; the other is that they really are not in Cameron’s interest.

They ought to happen because millions of people watched them. Three debates, each an hour and a half long, attracted huge audiences and allowed political leaders to speak directly to millions of voters, without being filtered by the sound-bite-and-summary of traditional election reporting.

As a constitutional traditionalist, I don’t like them. The idea that the debates were genuine discussions of the parties’ policies is absurd. They were collages of slogans and pre-scripted responses to the anticipated slogans of others (“I agree with Nick”), together with superficial devices such as Nick Clegg’s duck-facing to the camera when sincerity was required. (“Duck face” was added to the Oxford online dictionary last year: it means to pout when someone is taking your picture.)

I agree with Thatcher that ours is not a presidential system. But we Westminster bubble-ites have to accept that lots of people watching debates is better and more democratic than not so many people watching normal election coverage. 

 

Still, it’s normal election coverage that we are going to get, because the other thing that the 2010 debates confirmed was that the format gives a huge advantage to the underdog-outsider. Indeed, we have recently had a randomised control trial of this effect. In 2010, Clegg, the outsider, did brilliantly well. Last year, in his debates with Nigel Farage, Clegg, the insider, made the elementary mistake of giving the impression that he thought the European Union was a fine and dandy institution.

Cameron knows that Ed Miliband would exceed people’s low expectations and that Farage would be hard to handle. His aim, we can deduce, is to stall, stall and stall again in such a way that he can never quite be identified as the cause of the failure of the parties to agree.

When the debates don’t happen, however, don’t just blame Cameron, blame the BBC, Sky and ITV. They started with one tactic, which was to repeat the format from last time: three leaders, three debates. Then they realised that Ukip’s case was unanswerable, so they switched to a four-three-two format, one debate with Farage, one like last time and then a final head-to-head between candidate prime ministers. But they failed to consult the parties. The first Downing Street knew about the change of plan was 10 minutes before the broadcasters issued a press release. You would have thought that they would have worked on Cameron in advance. As it is, Cameron is able, as he did at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, to say Natalie Bennett, the Green Party leader, ought to take part too.

Which she should, and 50 per cent of voters agree. Now the broadcasters will have to offer a five-three-two or a five-two format. Either way, there will be trouble from the Scottish National Party, which has a share of the vote in Scotland so great that its share of the Great Britain vote, 4 per cent, is as much as the Greens’ in many polls.

The only way this Gordian knot can be cut is by threatening Cameron with an empty podium. Lord Hall, the BBC Director-General, describes this possibility as “very interesting”.  Allow me to translate: even if the broadcasters could find a format that would satisfy everyone except Cameron, they won’t have the courage to go ahead without a sitting Prime Minister. And reluctantly I accept that nor should they.

Why knock ticket touts? They offer  a welcome service

My New Year resolution not to be such a grumpy old man lasted until Monday this week when a cross-party amendment to the Consumer Rights Bill, about how dreadful secondary ticket websites are, was debated.

The belief that such websites are no more than digital ticket touts puts me in mind of my favourite Independent editorial, published in 1987 and headlined: “In praise of the ticket tout.” It argued that “the tout offers a genuine service and takes real risk of loss in the pursuit of his frequently modest profit”.

In all the complaints this week about the unfair practices perpetrated by secondary websites at the expense of “genuine fans”, I detected nothing that amounted to more than “I had to pay an awful lot for a ticket”. This is the politics of Ed Miliband, of pointing at things, saying how expensive they are and that there ought to be a law against it.

If tickets are snapped up within seconds of going on sale and then re-sold at huge mark-ups, they were priced too cheaply in the first place, weren’t they? If, say, I hadn’t already got a ticket for The Decemberists – the Oregon folk-rock band who are my current obsession – when they play Brixton next month, I’d be grateful to a tout who could offer me one.

That 1987 editorial concluded, and it is still true: “If the Queen knighted touts rather than civil servants she would do more for economic growth than all the Government’s departments and quangos put together.”

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