Dani Garavelli: Democracy suffers as May plays it safe

The studio for the ITV Leaders Debate in 2015 in MediaCityUK, Salford. Picture: ITV via Getty
The studio for the ITV Leaders Debate in 2015 in MediaCityUK, Salford. Picture: ITV via Getty
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By refusing to spar with her opponents on television, the Prime Minister is hiding from the legitimate scrutiny of voters, writes Dani Garavelli

It appears to be de rigueur for right-leaning commentators – who know Theresa May would fare badly in TV debates – to portray such innovations as vulgar American imports, of value only to the sound-bite hungry broadcasters who produce them.

Hand-in-hand with this goes a romanticisation of old-school campaigning: party political broadcasts, local hustings and the humble door-knock, with committed activists out in all weathers, winning over voters with fresh ideas and the power of their arguments.

But much old-style campaigning is ill-suited to the demands of modern life and excludes large sections of the population. Who listens to party political broadcasts these days? Not millennials forever scrolling on their smart phones. Hustings, too, involve a degree of commitment. And, while there is a lot to be said for canvassing, the doorstep is not always the best place to dissect manifesto pledges. Even if someone bothers to answer, they are more likely to nod in disingenuous agreement, while fretting about a pot of rice on their stove than to engage in a detailed discussion on the consequences of withdrawing from the European Court of Justice.

When the big hitters go out on the campaign trail, everything is stage-managed and driven by the need to create eye-catching photo stunts. Journalists trail in the politicians’ wake as they visit schools or speak to factory workers. Occasionally, there will be an unscripted incident: a voter asks a tricky question or the leader of the Labour Party leaves his mic on and calls a longtime party supporter a “bigot”, but most days, the best you can hope for is that a ram will pick a fight with Willie Rennie (amusing, but hardly enlightening).

Set against this backdrop, and in an era of widespread political disaffection, TV debates have a lot going for them. They raise awareness of the election and the issues likely to be at its heart. They place the party leaders on a level playing field and subject their policies to public scrutiny. Most importantly, they increase political engagement among the section of society least likely to vote: young people.

In 2010, the TV leaders’ debates (the first to be held in a general election campaign) led to an increase in the number of 18 to 24-year-olds joining the electoral register. According to research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 55 per cent of this age group said watching them had helped them choose where to place their cross.

The response to the 2015 TV debates – particularly the seven-leader debate watched by 7.3 million – was equally positive. A 10,000-strong survey carried out by Leeds University again suggested they were a useful tool with the power to reach sections of the population other types of campaigning didn’t touch (such as younger and first-time voters).

When those questioned were asked which sources of information had played the greatest role in helping them understand the issues, the TV debates were rated higher than newspapers, party leaflets, radio and social media. So beneficial did the researchers believe them to be, they urged all party leaders to commit to take part again in 2020 (they couldn’t have foreseen there would be another general election just round the corner ).

Televised debates, then, are good for democracy. Unfortunately Theresa May is less interested in what’s good for democracy than what’s good for Theresa May. And what’s good for Theresa May is to give them a bodyswerve, so she is refusing to get involved. At the moment, the Prime Minister is riding high in the polls. Why take the risk of tripping up while being challenged on the specifics of Brexit or the two-child cap on tax credits?

Admittedly, Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron are not the most formidable of political opponents, but Nicola Sturgeon is possessed of all the humour and poise May lacks, and would be well capable of skewering her over her attempt to control the timing of a second indyref. And May’s aloof, superior manner is unlikely to endear her to a TV audience; she is not the kind of woman who is ever going to be swept up into a group hug, such as the one the three female leaders – Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett – engaged in two years ago.

Ah, say the critics, but this is exactly what’s wrong with televised debates: they lower the tone and fuel personality politics. But temperament is important. Just look across the water at Donald Trump. We may not have a presidential system, but party leaders still call the shots. In an election called specifically to secure a mandate for Brexit, character is paramount. I want to know if the candidates are shallow, easily riled, humourless or socially dysfunctional. I want to know if they will stand their ground or crumble under pressure. And the best way to test that is to put them on the same platform and ask them tough questions.

In any case, if TV debates do feed a public obsession with personal foibles they are no different from other types of campaigning. The image of Ed Miliband which came to define him was not of him tripping as he left the Question Time platform, but of him eating a bacon sandwich out on the road. There’s a broader cultural problem here, which televised debates neither solve nor exacerbate.

With nothing to gain and plenty to lose, May is – as Corbyn says – “running scared”. It’s safer to focus on “meeting ordinary people” – while surrounded by a phalanx minders – than to be caught floundering on controversial issues such as the Rape Clause.

Yet, despite reassurances to the contrary, the Prime Minister has decided to call a general election to shore up support for a plan that will cause a generation’s worth of upheaval. If she intends to keep punishing the poorest, pursuing a hard Brexit and standing in the way of a second indyref, while turning a blind eye to the problems in Northern Ireland, then the very least she can do is stand with her rivals and justify herself.