No Election Debates Please, We're British

By Davies, Philip John | Contemporary Review, May 2005 | Go to article overview
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No Election Debates Please, We're British


Davies, Philip John, Contemporary Review


IN October 2004 The Guardian reported that 62.5 million Americans had tuned in for the first of the three debates to be televised as part of that year's presidential election campaign. Steve Anderson, creative director of Mentorn TV, argued that the level of political engagement suggested by attracting an audience four times more than the final episode of Friends, was itself prima facie evidence for the value of the televised political debate.

American presidential election debates have certainly had their moments. Many still remember Nixon's discomfort and Kennedy's calm demeanour from 1960. In 1976 Ford's mis-statements on Soviet domination in East Europe, and his inability to retrieve the situation when he was given the opportunity, did him no good. In 1980 Carter and Reagan confounded expectations when the President appeared low on substance, and the challenger failed to live up to his reputation as an extremist. More recently Gore's impatient sighs may have been more damaging than anyone expected, given that the 2000 election was so close. And while the 2004 debates did not give Kerry a victory, they certainly breathed new life into a comatose campaign, and the cut of Bush's suit provided grist for a public debate on whether the President was using technological aids during the event. The Guardian went on to ask about such debates 'Could it happen here?'

On the 5th of this month, the British people will vote in a general election. A general election in the United Kingdom is contested between political parties. The parties choose their leaders, and, unlike the American practice, these leaders do not take part in a separate public election. The Prime Minister is simply the leader of the political party that, when all the results are in, is in the position to form the next government administration.

The party political candidates are expected to base their campaigns on their party's election manifesto. While most voters never see a copy of the party manifesto, it sets the party agenda in a way that no other element of the campaign can claim. In UK elections candidate campaign spending is strictly limited. The precise limit varies according to the population size of the constituency, but is typically around [pounds sterling]9,000. Far more campaign spending is controlled by the national political parties. In 2001 the political parties spent nationally more than twice as much as the aggregate campaign spending made by all 3,319 candidates who stood for election. In a campaign so directed by the political parties, the role of the manifesto becomes even more significant.

The campaign in the electronic media is also driven by the party manifestos. The parameters of the electronic media campaign in a UK general election are firmly governed. The opportunity to advertise on TV and radio is strictly limited. All the major political parties that hold seats in the House of Commons receive a prescribed amount of free air time on the major national television and radio networks. This time is allocated to the political parties, not to candidates. No-one is allowed to purchase any television or radio time for political advertising. Neither political parties, nor candidates, interest groups, or individuals can add any radio or television political advertising to the allocation that is given to the political parties.

By convention the governing party and the main opposition party are allocated the same number of broadcasts and the maximum number of slots given to any party is five. In 2001 the slots varied in length from 2 minutes 40 seconds to 4 minutes 40 seconds. Other major parties are allocated time on the basis of previous support and number of candidates. Parties restricting their appeal to the nations that make up the UK are allocated time according to their previously demonstrated support and the number of candidates they are putting up in their region. Minor parties without seats are allocated time if they are running a reasonable number of candidates.

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