Thursday 15 April 2010

Party Leaders' Debate

It is a sad reflection on the state of our democracy that the mis-named "Prime-Ministerial" Debate which is to take place tonight is the lead item on this morning's BBC Radio 4 News. "What," as Tony Benn might say, "about all the issues?"

Hardly any commentators have pointed out that these debates are a retrograde step and pose a serious danger to our democracy. Here's why:

  • they place too much emphasis on the "personality" of the leaders. Would Clement Attlee have accepted an invitation to a TV debate with Churchill had the facility been available, and if he had, would he have won?
  • there is a possibility that a silly slip or a clever quip could turn the whole election, which should be about the issues;
  • our system of government is not presidential, but parliamentary, with an executive lead by a cabinet and not a president. The dangers of presidential leadership without the checks and balances of separation of powers and a written constitution (as in the USA) are well illustrated by Mrs Thatcher's arrogance, which gave us the poll tax, and Tony Blair's "sofa style" leadership, which lead to the illegal and highly damaging war in Iraq;
  • the emphasis on the Leader rather than the cabinet is making the job of prime Minister impossible and will undoubtedly lead to future errors and incompetences.
What are needed to revive our democracy are reforms which strengthen both parliament and the cabinet. In parliamentary terms that means measures to increase parliament's powers of scrutiny and weaken the authority of the whips. At cabinet level we need to move to shared leadership. The "Chancellor's" debate was a step in the right direction (though I'd have preferred to see them sitting down and discussing rather than standing upright like Easter Island statues).

Why not a series of debates with party spokespersons, in turn, discussing education, defence, home affairs, the environment etc., perhaps culminating in one leaders' "free for all"? That would put the emphasis where it ought to be and the leaders' positions into perspective.


  1. So, give the recent turn in events, are you still as opposed to the debates as you were?

  2. Great to hear from your Chris. Yes, because they still place too much emphasis on the leader and not enough on the rest of the team.We have a system of cabinet government and need to assess a goodly portion of the cabinet. As I advocated, a series of debates between the spokespersons for the major departments, ending with a leaders' "free for all" would be both more democratic and better or our democracy.

  3. I tend to agree; I suppose the worrying question is, can we really break the cycle of the public displaying less and less interest in the finer details of politics, and politicians and the media thus supplying them less still?

    Both the Conservatives and Lib Dems were very keen for these debates to happen and Labour reluctantly agreed (having previously been in favour when it suited them). I think the problem remains though that this "Britain's Got Politics" event has been the only feature of the campaign so far that has captured public interest - the Chancellors' Debate a few weeks prior certainly didn't generate any interest or enthusiasm.

    Doubtless we're sliding more toward a Presidential system of government where personality matters more than talent (again, remarkably consistent with reality TV shows!) - but how do we arrest this? Interest and participation in our system of cabinet government are at an all-time low - we have more transparency and access to our process than ever, yet few choose to engage.

    Selling out to personality politics is not my idea of democracy but at least people are participating - what practical alternative do you think there is? Replacing the Leaders' Debate with a series of debates that reinforce cabinet government would be a more 'pure' form of democracy perhaps, but would the public really engage in the policy detail?

    (Good to hear from you too! I trust all is well?)