Leaders fail in their democratic duty when they refuse to debate

'Challengers will always make ritual demands, as William Hague has, which are not really considered'

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America is now enjoying seeing Al Gore and George W Bush locked in television debate - brains and personalities showing, strengths and weaknesses displayed as they expound their policies. Each debate is subjected to extensive analysis, dissected by focus groups and summed up by opinion-poll verdicts. The consensus is that Gore won the first but showed himself arrogant in doing so, held himself in check in the second and lost in consequence. The US eagerly awaits the third.

America is now enjoying seeing Al Gore and George W Bush locked in television debate - brains and personalities showing, strengths and weaknesses displayed as they expound their policies. Each debate is subjected to extensive analysis, dissected by focus groups and summed up by opinion-poll verdicts. The consensus is that Gore won the first but showed himself arrogant in doing so, held himself in check in the second and lost in consequence. The US eagerly awaits the third.

They have had this privilege since 1960. Most other advanced democracies also enjoy it. Only in Britain are we denied the benefit of seeing our leaders debate with each other - a distinction we share with Yugoslavia. Our leaders tell us what a wonderful democracy we've got, but consistently avoid the leadership debates that would strengthen it and give the people the information about their leaders they want.

In other countries, they do so because leadership confrontations are a matter of right and habit often going back decades. Politicians occasionally try to avoid it, as in Australia in the Eighties, but are always forced back to the forum because the public wants and likes it. In several countries, most notably the United States, there is an accepted framework and established rules, with a commission to run the debates.

Only our leaders are too frightened to face up to their responsibilities. So lacking are they in confidence that they assume that slips like Nixon's failure to use Lazee Shave, quips like Reagan's "there you go again" to Jimmy Carter, George Dubya's invocation of "fuzzy maths", or phrases like Lloyd Benson's "You ain't no Jack Kennedy", win or lose elections. They don't, though the misconception demonstrates the insecurity and obsession with minutiae of our leaders.

Leaders and advisers both treat this basic democratic requirement as a tactical game, and are preoccupied more by pinning blame for failures on the other side than treating the electorate as adults. If they can't be guaranteed a win, they won't play. Even from a position of strength. Indeed, requesting debates becomes a signal of defeatism, as when John Major offered debates in 1997. Tony Blair promptly sent his lawyer, now the Lord Chancellor, in on a wrecking mission (developing skills he's since applied to the legal system).

These tactical games can go on forever. Incumbents will find every excuse to avoid exposing themselves, and challengers will always make ritual demands, as William Hague already has, which are not seriously considered. Without a framework to force leaders to live up to their responsibilities they won't, but no such framework can be developed unless leadership debates are offered to the public as a right, and accepted by the parties as a duty.

This deadlock is compounded by the broadcasting organisations. Each wants exclusive rights, its own format, and presenters chosen from the jostling scrum of egos who mediate between the people and the truth at such inordinate profit to themselves. In 1997, when a real possibility opened, the broadcasters threw themselves belatedly into a frenzy of activity, and Sky cheekily interposed itself, a competition that precluded any attempt to tie the politicians down.

Broadcasters should act now to organise a situation in which politicians can't dodge the column. With six months to go before the earliest possible election on 3 May, there is still time to tie the politicians down. Ideally, this could be done under the auspices of some august and impartial body, like the Hansard Society. Sadly, august bodies move slowly and it's getting late. So the BBC, ITN and ITV should get together urgently at the highest level, put their differences aside, and agree a framework. If the parties can delay it by the nit-picking they're so good at, they'll do so. They can't in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and shouldn't be allowed to here.

Start cautiously and simply with a panel putting questions which the candidates then debate at length. This is accepted, hallowed by continuity and success elsewhere, and it works. The broadcasters will overflow with bright alternative ideas: representative audiences selected by pollsters; direct links to viewers in remote studios or by e-mail, fax or phone; a panel of Paxpersons, a mass write-in with questions selected on volume of evidence. Put all this aside. The most difficult thing is not to devise brilliant formulae. Our television masters are adept at that. It is to get something quickly that the politicians will accept. That requires simplicity, manageability and as much predictability as we can provide.

Scotland and Wales will need devolved debates screened only on their own media. These can be handled either by national leaders matched with Nationalist parties and Liberals on the grounds that this is a national election, or by Labour and Tory leaders in the devolved assemblies. That's up to the parties. The problem of the Liberals isn't difficult either. They have over 15 per cent of the vote, the American threshold, but can form a government only in Charles Kennedy's wildest dreams. Makeweights shouldn't get the same as dominant players, who can govern. The Liberals deserve equality in allocation of leader and party-political time but not in leadership debates. Participation in one debate in three would be fair.

The politicians will seize every opportunity to quibble and delay and have enormous talent at their disposal to do it. So first get them to express their general support for this democratic right, then give them the agreed format and dates on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Any leader who turns this down will face the odium of failing in their democratic duty. They'll submit, however loud the grumbles.

This may sound like bullying of the vulnerable, but something needs to be done to bring Britain up to democratic speed, and only if the broadcasting organisations work together and take a strong line can we bring our democracy up to date. Unless we do that, the democratic right to assess leaders in battle will be lost, and those of us who have long wanted leadership debates will be reduced once again to pathetic postmortems on why something so right and so necessary didn't happen in 2001. Just as it didn't in 1997, 1992, 1987, 1983, 1979 - right back into the mists of crime.

 

* The writer is Labour MP for Grimsby, and chairman of the backbench All Party Media Group

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