Should Debates Between Party Leaders Be Mandatory?

There’s been a lot of Sturm und Drang recently over the proposed debates between the party leaders in the run-up to next May’s General Election. The question of who should take part is proving to be quite divisive: David Cameron wants to see a wide spread of parties take part (he’s particularly keen on seeing the Greens included), but the broadcasters are pushing for a narrower field. Of course, Cameron isn’t being altruistic—he figures that, if he’s going to face a rightwing challenge from UKIP, Labour should face a leftwing challenge from the Greens. After Cameron rejected yet another proposal, Ed Miliband announced that, should he form the next Government, he would legislate to make televised debates between the party leaders mandatory.

The details are still vague at this point, but it seems there would be a statutory body that would oversee the debates. In theory, this would prevent parties from trying to game the system during the negotiation process, and a statutory framework could make things fairer in the long run. While the creation of a statutory body makes a certain amount of sense, Labour wants to go a step further and make participation mandatory.

This is where things get problematic. It’s not clear if party leaders who fail to show up would be subject to legal penalties, but that would be a step too far. Voters, not judges, should penalize party leaders who play hooky. Ultimately, the decision to take part in a debate is a political matter, and the courts are not the proper forum for resolving political disputes.

Labour should tread very carefully before proposing debate-related legislation. These televised debates are a new development (the first ones were held during the 2010 General Election), and their place in British political life is still uncertain. Just because American presidential candidates engage in head-to-head debates doesn’t mean that potential Prime Ministers necessarily need to follow suit–after all, there are key differences between the two offices. But in the long run, legislation is probably unnecessary. If the British people decide the debates have value, it will be much harder for future party leaders to adopt Cameron’s cavalier attitude.

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