The Clegg/Farage head-to-head on Europe was a boon for democracy. We need the same before every election

While traditionalists say the virus of presidentialism is infecting our democracy, the TV debates at the last general election were long, serious affairs watched by millions

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The Independent Online

Nigel Farage was acclaimed the winner of the head-to-head debate with Nick Clegg in the snap poll taken within 10 minutes of its ending. As a newspaper that supports the UK’s membership of the European Union, we are disappointed but not dismayed. As a newspaper that supports television debates as a boon to informed democracy, we are delighted.

More significant, perhaps, than the 57 per cent to 36 per cent advantage enjoyed by Mr Farage on the superficial question of who “won” was the small shift in opinion against Britain’s membership of the EU recorded by YouGov. Before the debate, YouGov found a six-point lead for those who want Britain to stay in the EU; afterwards, this advantage had shrunk to three points. It can only be hoped that, at next week’s rematch, the Deputy Prime Minister can tilt the balance the other way.

Whatever we think of the immediate outcome, however, we rejoice in the spectacle of serious debate about the nation’s future, engaged people and changing their minds. That is the essence of democracy, and that is why this debate, and the second next Wednesday, are so welcome. We are confident that ultimately the case for Europe is strengthened by being subjected to this democratic test. We are confident, too, that, while British opinion may have turned against the EU because of the economic crisis and the problems of the euro, it is turning back to a pragmatic recognition of where our national interest lies. In the past, it may have been that pro-Europeans shied away from debate and assumed that they knew best: no longer.

While traditionalists may mutter about the virus of presidentialism infecting our parliamentary democracy, the TV debates at the last general election were long, serious affairs watched by millions. They were a huge democratic advance compared with the usual coverage of election campaigns, often reduced to three-and-a-half-minute news items in which politicians were lucky to get a 20-second sound bite.

That is why it is so important to overcome the Prime Minister’s stalling and ensure that the TV debates happen again in the election campaign next year. Tactically, the broadcasters are right to stick to the simplest demand, which is to repeat the “three debates, three leaders” format. Democratically, however, the case for including Mr Farage is irresistible. The existing conventions, which put most weight on the number of each party’s MPs, are biased against change. Representation in the European Parliament, on local councils and in opinion polls should be taken into account as well.

Mr Cameron must not be allowed, however, to use the attempt to include Mr Farage as a way to obfuscate and to prevent agreement. The broadcasters should publish their proposals as soon as the European Parliament elections have been held. They should be able to secure the ready agreement of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Ukip. The moral pressure on Mr Cameron should then be at its greatest: if agreement cannot be reached, it should be clear who has blocked it.

This week’s head-to-head is a reminder that TV debates between the main party leaders are an important democratic gain for which it’s worth fighting before every election.