Leader: A televised debate gets the people's vote

Click to follow
The Independent Online
At last the brilliance of John Major's tactics is revealed. Now the campaign is under way, the wisdom of not calling the election last October is clear for all to see. The delay has given time for the feel- good factor to take hold, so that the gap in the opinion polls, in turn, had time to close. Not to mention the fact that the Government had a lot of important business to transact and measures to put on the statute book. Not everyone can remember what they were. But never mind: the past five months have given the Conservatives the chance to demonstrate their unity and renewed sense of purpose, while exposing the weaknesses of "new" Labour. All topped by the master-stroke: pressing bravely ahead with the Wirral South by-election, a move designed to give the final fillip to party morale before setting off on the campaign proper.

From this Conservative College of Political Strategy comes another wheeze, precisely designed to set the campaign off with a positive bang: a challenge from the Prime Minister to engage the opposition leader in televised debate.

All right, enough of the witless irony. A debate might genuinely do Mr Major some good, even if it is a strange and possibly unconvincing offer to make, when the legal requirements on the broadcasters to maintain balance in their coverage of elections are well-known, and the Prime Minister refuses to let Paddy Ashdown into the studio.

Whether or not Mr Major's offer is sincere, a live television debate is one of the few American political imports that should be welcomed open- armed on these shores. Millions of American citizens watch their presidential debates, which are usually hour-long, serious affairs, helping to counter a television culture that is otherwise often justly derided for its triviality and its viewers' short attention span. People watch them for mixed reasons, with bloodlusting entertainment counting at least as high as civic responsibility. Debates are remembered afterwards for the superficialities and the sound bites: Nixon's sweat; the hypothetical rape of Dukakis's wife; "Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine". But they do deal with matters of substance, because the leaders cannot get away with less. And they draw people into the democratic process more than anything else could. They are, in fact, a fine way to reclaim the old 19th-century hustings - which were rather rowdier affairs than any television debate is likely to be.

A British debate would not be a mere exchange of sound bites, it would be a sound banquet. It would provide urgently needed relief from 20-second excerpts on news bulletins and edited speeches on late-night programmes marked as suitable for anoraks only. In a debate Mr Major's attempt to dismiss Mr Blair as a sound-bite politician would fail. The Labour leader has shown, every time talks to party members, business leaders and the public, that there is more to him than that. He can do slogans and one- liners very well, but he can do the other stuff too. On the few occasions in the Commons that he has engaged with the Prime Minister outside the constraints of Prime Minister's Questions, Mr Blair has been a formidable debater. The pair would give each other at least as good as they get.

But a debate is not just about a contest of debating skills. It is a clash of values. There are important differences between Labour and the Tories on unemployment, Europe and our system of government. And there are other critical issues in danger of being ignored in the election campaign, which a debate could open up. At the start of the year, The Independent set out the eight questions we were afraid would not be asked, let alone answered, in the election campaign. Now, as Mr Major gets out the A-Z and looks up Buckingham Palace, we still do not know if Mr Blair will back voting reform. Would Labour take Britain into the single currency? Why won't Labour match the Tory pledge to maintain NHS spending? What does any party mean by radical reform of the welfare state?

A debate, or series of debates, could prevent several awkward issues being closed down. But the difficult questions are much more likely to be asked if Mr Ashdown takes part. His position in British politics is much more significant than Ross Perot's in America. His party won nearly one in every five votes cast at the last election and is more important in local government than the Conservatives.

As for Tory spin doctors complaining that Mr Ashdown and Mr Blair would be "two against one", this shows both a yellow streak and an ignorance of Liberal Democrat positioning. If Mr Ashdown did appear to gang up with Mr Blair, it would scare a lot of soft Lib Dem voters back into the blue corner on election day. Mr Ashdown would be bound to adopt the "Reasonable Man" approach of siding with Mr Blair on some things (constitutional change) while giving him a hard time on others (education spending).

So it is now up to the broadcasters to devise a format which gives Mr Ashdown less prominence in the debate and squeeze the Prime Minister between shouts of "Chicken!" and the threat of Lib-Dem legal action into making good his promise. Once that is settled, let us have a debate between Kenneth Clarke and Gordon Brown too. Let us clarify some of the loose ends of Mr Brown's five-year pledge not to raise income-tax rates and his two- year pledge to stick to Tory spending limits. It was not clear yesterday, for example, what his position is on National Insurance contributions, which are an income tax by another name.

People would turn on for Clarke v Brown, a heavyweight contest if ever there were one. And there is an edge of personal dislike which makes Major v Blair intrinsically watchable - the most important justification for televised debates. They would let the voters in on a campaign which too often seems to be going on, muffled, behind the television screen. Let us give the election back to the people.