TV election debates are still a bit of a novelty in the UK.
Each time an election is called, there’s the question of whether any will take place, how they will be organised and who will take part. Broadcasters are still experimenting – this time putting on two-way debates, seven-way debates, a climate change debate and a special youth audience debate, among other permutations.
So is there room for improvement? And, if so, what might that look and sound like? Here are some expert suggestions.
1. Turn off the microphones
No-one likes it when leaders interrupt and talk over each other. It puts the focus on confrontation rather than discussion and does little to showcase anyone’s qualities as a potential prime minister. As US academic Bryan Van Norden puts it, writing for the Hipporeads website, “There is absolutely no professional or political context in which elegantly interrupting others or being interrupted by others is a useful skill.”
He suggests simply switching off leaders’ microphones when it’s not their turn to speak. As soon as each person has finished talking, off it goes and the next one turns on.
Knowing they will go silent could also stop them “filibustering”, or trying to run down the clock by refusing to stop talking.
2. Go old-school – force politicians to just… debate
UK televised debates tend to feature glitzy sets, rows of podiums and heavy intervention from moderators. They are also often quite short by international standards. Time can therefore be tight and the result heavy on soundbites and low on substance.
It wasn’t always like this. One of the UK’s earliest televised political debates was between rival Labour frontbenchers Roy Jenkins and Tony Benn during the 1975 European referendum campaign. They debated the single issue for 50 minutes, with no studio audience, no fancy set and very little intervention. Its often viewed now as a model of “proper” debate – two intellectual heavyweights tussling with serious issues, listening to each other’s points and responding reasonably.
The French presidential debates have run on a similar no-frills model since the 1970s. Candidates sit across a table and there’s no studio audience. The most recent, between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, lasted two-and-a-half hours and drew an audience of 16.5 million. It was brutal, with the pair trading bitter insults, “but it didn’t half make for riveting viewing,” said BBC Paris correspondent Hugh Schofield. “[A]nd at the end of the day, the debate did its job.” No one who watched was left in any doubt who stood for what.
3. Robot fact-checkers
If we can’t trust politicians to get facts right and tell the truth, then having debates at all is pointless.
Much effort already goes into fact-checking, with the likes of independent fact-checking charity Full Fact and the BBC’s Reality Check deploying journalists to scour statistics and consult experts in order to verify politicians’ claims. Viewers can get updates online during debates or read the verdicts afterwards. But of course not everyone does this, meaning politicians might not be adequately held to account.
So the race is on to speed up fact-checking and put it at the heart of the debates themselves.
The BBC News channel already uses on-screen Reality Check “push-backs” – or text boxes – during its live debate broadcasts. And Full Fact has started live checking for other broadcasters, such as LBC.
But as Will Moy, Full Fact’s chief executive, says, “It’s something audiences really want but it’s hard to do it fast enough to make it matter.”
The game-changer looks likely to be the use of artificial intelligence. Full Fact is developing software that can check facts far faster than humans, training machines to spot claims and trawl for data which can prove them right or wrong, So the day when we see automated fact-checks appearing on TV screens in real time during debates may not be far off.
4. Ban cheering and clapping
Back in 2010 the UK’s first modern TV election debate took place in front of a respectful and hushed studio audience, There was no jeering or cheering and they were banned from clapping. Since then, audiences have become more vocal, with spectators cheering, clapping and even booing. It can feel a bit like Punch and Judy.
Dr Nick Anstead, associate professor at the London School of Economics’ media and communications department, thinks we should go back to silence – and aim for an audience of genuinely undecided voters. “It would at the very least remove the distortion of the audiences we now tend to have. It would change the atmosphere in the studio and make it less of a bear pit.”
Debates routinely involve ordinary members of the public – often by asking them to submit questions for politicians to answer. But this could be taken further. Stephen Coleman, professor of political communication at the University of Leeds, suggests asking people to send in video clips about their lives and problems, which could be sprung on the leaders mid-debate. “What specifically will you do to help this person?” they could be asked.
Or could broadcasters rip up the debate formula altogether and task politicians with convincing a real voter, while the cameras roll?
Matthew Flinders, professor of politics at the University of Sheffield would like to see “not a debate but a conversation with someone picked out from the public, who would sit down and get to know the politician, understand about their life, where they’re coming from and how that flows into their their policies and beliefs.”
It could make it harder for politicians to wriggle out of questions and expose them to intense scrutiny – but it would also give them the chance to come across as “normal”.
This could be electoral gold dust: “It’s an element that’s been missing so far, No politician has really made an emotional connection with voters,” Prof Flinders says.
6. Regulate them
Since the UK has never settled on rules for debates, broadcasters and politicians must thrash them out each time. This year the Lib Dems and SNP went to the court to challenge ITV’s decision not to include Jo Swinson and Nicola Sturgeon in its prime ministerial debate – though the challenge was rejected.
Dr Anstead says there are three conflicting dynamics surrounding debates: the politicians, who want to get their messages across and “will do anything to avoid generating a negative clip that could go viral”; the broadcasters “who just want to make good TV”; and “the democratic need to actually inform voters”.
Although politicians and broadcasters would dispute this characterisation, the absence of proper rules means the “first two are dominating at the moment”, says Dr Anstead.
Like the US, Canada has an independent commission tasked with organising official election debates. There are clear rules, consistent formulas for deciding who gets to be in which debates and they are the same from year to year. In the UK, Sky News has been pressing for something similar, with its Make Debates Happen campaign. This year its petition received more than 140,000 signatures and was debated in Parliament.
The government’s response? “Televised election debates are a matter for political parties. The government has no plans to change electoral law to make the debates mandatory.”
Interactive content: Upgrade your browser for the full experience. Alternatively, click here for a list of election terms and what they mean.
Term for an MP who is not a minister. They sit behind the front benches in the House of commons.
Another term for vote.
A sealed box with a slit in the lid. Voters place their ballot papers through the slit into the box. When polls close the boxes are opened and counting begins.
Paper containing a list of all candidates standing in a constituency. Voters mark their choice with a cross.
An election held between general elections, usually because the sitting MP has died or resigned.
Someone putting themselves up for election. Once Parliament has been dissolved, there are no MPs, only candidates.
During a campaign, active supporters of a party ask voters who they will vote for and try to drum up support for their own candidates.
Close of nominations
The deadline for candidates standing to send in the officials forms confirming their place in the election. This is usually __ days before polling day.
When two or more parties govern together, when neither has an overall majority. After the 2010 election, the Conservatives and Lib Dems formed a coalition, which lasted for five years.
Confidence and supply
A agreement between two political parties where the smaller party agrees to support a larger one without enough MPs to have a majority in parliament.
The Conservative party is
The geographical unit which elects a single MP. There are 650 in the UK.
In politics, a 'dead cat' strategy is when a dramatic or sensational story is disclosed to divert attention away from something more damaging. The term comes from the concept of an imaginary dead cat being flung onto a dining table, causing the diners to become distracted by it.
The announcement of the election result in each constituency.
A sum of £500 paid by candidates or their parties to be allowed to stand. It is returned if the candidate wins 5% or more of the votes cast.
The delegation of powers to other parliaments within the UK, specifically the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies.
The Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies are elected by voters in those nations of the UK. They make laws on policy areas controlled by those nations such as health, environment and education.
Dissolution of Parliament
The act of ending a Parliament before an election. When parliament is dissolved there are no MPs, but the prime minister and other senior ministers remain in their roles.
Electoral register / roll
A list of everyone in a constituency entitled to vote. Also known as electoral roll.
An exit poll is a poll of voters leaving a voting station. They are asked how they have voted, and the results are used to forecast what the overall result of the election may be.
First past the post
Term used to describe the UK's parliamentary election system. It means a candidate only needs to win the most votes in their constituency to win the seat.
When a party wins a constituency from another party, it is said to have "gained" it from the other.
Election at which all seats in the House of Commons are contested.
If after an election no party has an overall majority, then parliament is said to be "hung". The main parties will then try to form a coalition with one or more of the minor parties. Opinion polls have suggested that a hung parliament is a strong possibility after the 2015 general election.
A meeting a which candidates address potential voters. The word comes from an old Norse word meaning "house of assembly".
A candidate who is not a member of any political party and is standing on their own personal platform. To qualify as an official political party, a party must be registered with the Electoral Commission, the organisation which administers elections in the UK.
The name given to an election which one party wins by a very large margin. Famous landslides in UK elections include Labour's victory in 1945, the Conservative win in 1983 and the election which brought Tony Blair to power in 1997.
A person or party with strong socialist policies or beliefs.
The name of the party occupying the centre ground of British politics. They were formed from the former Liberal party and Social Democrats, a Labour splinter group, and combine support for traditional liberalism such as religious tolerance and individual freedom, with support for social justice.
A majority in Parliament means one side has at least one more vote than all the other parties combined and is therefore more likely to be able to push through any legislative plans.
When one party wins more than half of the seats in the Commons, they can rule alone in a majority government
Politicians say they have a mandate, or authority, to carry out a policy when they have the backing of the electorate.
A public declaration of a party's ideas and policies, usually printed during the campaign. Once in power, a government is often judged by how many of its manifesto promises it manages to deliver.
Seats where the gap between the two or more leading parties is relatively small. Often regarded as less than a 10% margin or requiring a swing (see below) of 5% or less, though very dependent on prevailing political conditions.
A minority government is one that does not have a majority of the seats in Parliament. It means the government is less likely to be able to push through any legislative programme. Boris Johnson has suffered a number of defeats in Parliament over a no-deal Brexit because he does not have a majority.
Strictly this includes members of the House of Lords, but in practice means only members of the House of Commons. When an election is called Parliament is dissolved and there are no more MPs until it assembles again.
A candidate must be nominated on these documents by 10 voters living in the constituency.
A survey asking people's opinion on one or more issues. In an election campaign, the key question is usually about which party people will vote for.
The largest party not in government is known as the official opposition. It receives extra parliamentary funding in recognition of its status.
Party Election Broadcast
Broadcasts made by the parties and transmitted on TV or radio. By agreement with the broadcasters, each party is allowed a certain number according to its election strength and number of candidates fielded.
The swing shows how far voter support for a party has changed between elections. It is calculated by comparing the percentage of the vote won in a particular election to the figure obtained in the previous election.
Place where people go to cast their votes
People unable to get to a polling station are allowed to vote by post if they apply in advance.
Proportional representation (PR)
Any voting system where the share of seats represents the share of votes is described as proportional representation. The UK currently has a first past the post system.
Parliament is usually prorogued, or suspended, ahead of an election or Queen's Speech to allow for preparations. In September 2019 Boris Johnson attempted to prorogue Parliament for five weeks, but the Supreme Court later ruled the prorogation unlawful and MPs returned to Parliament.
A person who studies voting and voting patterns.
This is the time between the announcement of an election and the final election results. During this period media organisations have to ensure any political reporting is balanced and is not likely to influence the outcome of the election.
If a result is close, any candidate may ask for a recount. The process can be repeated several times if necessary until the candidates are satisfied. The returning officer has the final say on whether a recount takes place.
The official in charge of elections in each of the constituencies. On election night they read out the results for each candidate in alphabetical order by surname.
Someone who is right wing in politics usually supports tradition and authority, as well as capitalism. The Conservative party is regarded as the main centre-right party in the UK.
A safe seat is a constituency where an MP has a sufficiently large majority to be considered unwinnable by the opposition.
The attempt to place a favourable interpretation on an event so that people or the media will interpret it in that way. Those performing this act are known as spin doctors.
Any ballot paper that is not marked clearly, eg with more than one box ticked or with writing scrawled across it, is described as a spoiled ballot and does not count towards the result.
This is when people vote not for the party they really support, but for another party in order to keep out a more disliked rival.
In theory, any seat that a party contests and held by a rival is one of its targets. In practice, a target seat is one that a party believes it can win and puts a lot of effort into doing so.
Turnout is the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot on polling day.
Vote of no confidence
It is usually the leader of the opposition, currently Jeremy Corby, who calls for a vote of no confidence, in an attempt to topple the government. If more MPs vote for the motion than against it, then the government has 14 days to try to win back the confidence of MPs through another vote – while the opposition parties try to form an alternative government. If nothing is resolved, then a general election is triggered.
The UK Parliament is located in the Palace of Westminster in the centre of London and the term is often used as an alternative to Parliament.
A working majority in Parliament is what a government needs to carry out its legislative programme without risk of defeat. It means the government can rely on at least one more vote than the opposition parties. However, in the current Parliament, the government no longer has a majority and MPs from a range of opposition parties have joined forces to form a parliamentary majority big enough to defeat the government over plans for a no-deal Brexit.