It would be an overstatement to describe live television debates as a tradition of British general elections. After all, they were only staged for the first time here four years ago. But the success of those debates in 2010, watched by a combined total of more than 20 million people, convinced me they should be here to stay and become an instant tradition. I think people value the chance to see party leaders discussing issues in depth, not in ten-second soundbites, direct and unfiltered by commentators or newspapers.
That would matter in any general election, but next May’s is set to be a pivotal one, with big choices to be made not only about who runs our country but also for whom our country is run. And it is right that people demand answers to questions they ask at home: will hardworking families ever be able to share in the fruits of prosperity; will their children get the chance to build a decent life; will the NHS always be there when we need it? So this is the British people’s opportunity to conduct and watch a job interview with those of us applying for the job of prime minister.
It would be extraordinary if any political party tried to argue that cancelling TV debates would serve the interests of democracy. And David Cameron has been very careful, at least in his public utterances, not to do so. But no one should doubt that he is the single biggest obstacle to getting TV debates on at the next election.
Indeed, the debates’ success four years ago should not disguise how, between TV debates first being proposed in 1964 and a deal finally being reached in 2010, no fewer than a dozen general elections went by without them. This was because politicians too often believed they could secure narrow political advantage by stopping the debates happening. And now, a year before the next general election, the same old games that prevented TV debates for almost half a century risk being played out again.
Mr Cameron wonders aloud if there were not too many debates last time. Whether they were held at the right time, or dominated the campaign too much. There have been reports that he wants to limit the number of debates to one – or none. It is a pity that the Conservatives will not even sit down to begin negotiations until later this year – when it will be harder to secure an agreement – and have stalled at every opportunity they have been given to do so.
I can only assume that Mr Cameron wants his party’s deep pockets to be used for maximum advantage and that perceived political self-interest lies behind his party’s reluctance to get these debates on.
But no one should want the outcome of the next election distorted by the number of direct mailshots and billboard posters a party can buy. And, while TV debates will not level the playing field on their own, they can help enable people to make better-informed choices when they cast their votes.
At the next election I am determined to take the battle for Britain’s future to every corner of the country. The chance to appear in TV debates in every living room is a crucial part of that one nation campaign. So Labour stands ready to sit down tomorrow with the other parties to discuss how to get these debates on.
The broadcasters will ultimately determine who is invited and, of course, the format could be improved. I would like to see more opportunities for the audience to ask questions and the setting to be less formal, because that would help ensure the real priorities of people are reflected, rather than just the point-scoring we sometimes see in Westminster.
However, because I am not going to give the Conservatives the excuse to walk off the pitch by claiming we have moved the goalposts, the starting point for negotiations should be the agreement Mr Cameron signed up to four years ago: three debates between the three main party leaders over three weeks of the campaign. With the election just a year away, it is time Mr Cameron stopped dragging his feet and showed he is willing to debate the future of our country by allowing the negotiations to begin.
Although they were called “prime ministerial debates” four years ago, they should not really be in the gift of the prime minister. In 2015, they should belong to the British people.
Ed Miliband is leader of the Labour Party.
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