It seems that as a nation we are obsessed with the notion of making politics more accessible. David Cameron has received great criticism recently for his refusal to take part in the televised election debates, with some condemning him for his apparent disregard for an institution that is complete British enfranchisement. Clearly it is important, and essential to maintaining democracy, that all of society has the opportunity to engage in politics, however, whether or not TV debates are the best way to achieve this is questionable.
Imported from the US in 2010, the TV debates are now considered by many to be bastions of modern democracy. Indeed, it is true that at the last election, with an estimated 9.4 million viewers tuned in to watch Clegg, Cameron and Brown battle it out over the challenges facing the economy, the televised debates were successful in engaging the wider electorate with a greater range of political parties and policy ideas. Voter turnout was placed at 65.1 per cent, the highest it has been since 1997 and the triumphant win of Blair and New Labour, and Nick Clegg was able to increase the percentage of votes won by the Lib Dems by 1 per cent from 2005. In this case, numbers speak louder than words. The statistics clearly demonstrate that the TV debates, by making politics an activity for all to engage in and understand, give great legitimacy to the majority party.
However, our growing reliance on TV debates as central components to the election campaigns of the main UK political parties is worrying. If we wished for Britain to adopt a presidential style of rule, this commercialisation of our political system might be justified. But, as the system currently stands, glossy images of our politicians on TV are entirely out of place. Generally, televised debates force us to judge the leaders of parties as opposed to the policies that they advocate. This has been true since 1960, and the infamous debate between Kennedy and Nixon. Despite Vice President Nixon starting the debate as the clear favourite to win, his pale and unshaven face and sweating brow lost him a great deal of support. As much as we may intend to judge the policies over the character, it is impossible not to be swept up by the charisma and charm of a candidate of Kennedy’s calibre.
In Cameron’s defence, the televised debates do not support the governing party nor any other major party. Nick Clegg, who emerged as a serious candidate for office following the televised debates of 2010, was only so successful because he is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. With no risk of being elected prime minister at voting day, the debates enabled Clegg to make wild promises which it was clear he could never deliver. We can question whether the ambitious Lib Dem policy of removing the cap on tuition fees would have gained similar traction had Clegg not had the chance to promote it so heavily on national television.
Despite my criticism of these contentious debates, I appreciate that they have proved to be successful in ensuring parliamentary legitimacy. However, I do agree with Mr Cameron to an extent. If UKIP is to be included come April, despite having less votes at the last election than the Green Party, so too should other minor parties. It is undemocratic and frankly manipulative of Ofcom to rule this far-right party as worthy of air time, but not include other parties of similar size and relevance.