Peter Mandelson is ‘open’ to a broadcast debate between the party leaders at the next general election. He said yesterday: “The public needs to choose and find out what is behind these leaders, who has the most experience, the best ideas and who can really build Britain’s future.”
And why not? It’s a kite that gets flown by broadcasters every time there’s a general election in the offing. There’s an inevitability that it will happen one day. So why not just say yes and get on with it.
As a former Labour press officer I remember tedious exchanges of letters between party and media bigwigs, which generally galloped towards brinkmanship and ended up, at the brink, with a frosty agreement to disagree.
Head-to-head debate is so familiar in our culture, from the marketplace hustings of past centuries to BBC Question Time today, that it seems odd that in Britain we don’t have a debate between party leaders.
It’s an accepted part of national elections in other modern democracies – the US being the best-known example. In the US, the debates are carefully moderated and prepared for at length beforehand.
Over here the argument against has always been that we have a parliamentary democracy and voters are electing their MPs, not the prime minister. Whilst that is true, it’s also the case that voters are electing a government which will be led by a prime minister. So it makes sense to line those candidates up for national inspection, just as at the next election parliamentary candidates will be lined up at hustings in hundreds of community halls for local inspection.
After Lord Mandelson gave his view, it has been said that No 10 suggested Gordon Brown remains against the idea (just as Tony Blair was). Whatever Brown’s view is – let’s not forget there are far bigger national issues on his desk – I have no doubt he (like Blair) could wipe the floor with Messrs Cameron and Clegg on substance and policy, depending on the format.
Ah, it’s always the format that is the problem, with three parties (at least) involved, each wanting to insist on the format that suits their position best. It would be like organising a wedding ceremony where the bride and groom loathe each other and the bridesmaid (who is never the bride) insists on elbowing her way up the aisle between them and snogging the vicar.
The Conservatives have sought to capitalise, with a letter from Cameron to Brown seeking ‘clarification’. Perhaps Brown should respond asking for clarification on a list of Cameron’s policies.
The Lib Dems have said they would be happy with as many debates as possible. Well they would, wouldn’t they?