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Political Communication in British Politics – The General Election Leader’s Debates

The Debates in 2010

Opposition leaders have regularly challenged the incumbent Prime Minister to a debate but Prime Ministers have refused, mainly because they might lose the prestige attached to the office if they were placed in a forum where they were equal to the Leader of the Opposition.

In 1997, Major actually accepted Blair’s challenge but then Blair, way ahead in the opinion polls, decided not to go for a debate.

In 2010, various factors led to the first Leader’s debate taking place:-

– All three leaders felt there would be a benefit from a debate. Brown, behind in the polls, felt that a detailed debate on policy would play to his strengths and that he could demonstrate his success in dealing with the economic crisis. Cameron had made his willingness to debate part of his leadership campaign and was a skilled television performer. For a Liberal Democrat leader any chance to be on equal footing with the leaders of the two main parties was an opportunity not to be missed.

– Sky News promoted the idea and threatened to go ahead with whichever leader turned up. A small group representing Sky, ITV and the BBC, as the three channels hosting the debates, and the three political parties steered the negotiations through.

– In the wake of the expenses scandal there was a feeling that politicians should be seen to be debating openly before the public.

The format was three 90 minute debates on Thursdays a week apart. An editorial team chose questions from the audience (who were not allowed to clap) and from emails, and the presenter then encouraged interaction between the presenters. They took up a lot of campaign time with the leaders using the weekend to prepare and the Friday had to be spent discussing the aftermath.

Media coverage was immense with discussion of how the debates might go and then how they did go dominating election coverage to the exclusion of coverage of issues and the rest of the campaign.

Public reaction was positive, especially among younger people, and half of 18-39 year old said that it helped them make up their mind about how to vote and 80% that they learned more about the parties. 87% of viewers discussed the debates with others and 55% said that it made them more interested in the campaign.


The impact of the first debate was remarkable.

Cameron gave a comparatively wooden performance while Clegg spoke informally straight to the camera. Cameron had, perhaps, been over-coached by advisers studying the US debates on how to look Presidential but this style does not work with British audiences and diverted Cameron from his usual informal style.

Liberal Democrat support shot up 10 points in the opinion polls, after the first debate, and Annette Brooks, who held onto the highly marginal Mid Dorset and Poole seat for the party, remembered that things were very difficult on the doorstep before the first debate but were transformed afterwards.

Although the Lib Dem vote was not in the end as high as the opinion polls were suggesting half of those who said they had changed their vote during the campaign said the debates had influenced them.

The Leader’s Debates 2015

The General Election in 2010 saw the first ever Leader’s Debates before an election. Negotiations for 2015 did not run smooth.

Although entirely down to broadcasters to decide on format there was upset about the inclusion of smaller parties and from David Cameron a refusal to take part unless Natalie Bennett from the Green Party was represented.

Following this broadcasters decided to hold debates that included all seven main UK political party leaders, to include UKIP, the Greens and nationalist parties from Scotland and Wales.

Proposals saw debates being held on 2, 16 and 30 April 2015 during the heart of the campaigning. One of these debates was just between David Cameron and Ed Miliband in a head-to-head although they did not appear on stage together.

Broadcasters said that anyone who did not like the format would be ’empty-chaired’ on the day to show that they chose not to show up.