Prime ministerial debates belong to the voters, not the politicians.

Broadcasters need to insist on a more open set of debates.

Imagine if Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative Party press offices got together and determined the running order and format of Newsnight, night after night. The show would lose its edge, its reputation and, rapidly, its audience.

This may sound like a paranoid nightmare of the future of broadcast political journalism. But it's a rough-and-ready précis of what happened in the "prime ministerial" debates during the election campaign. The broadcasters, keen to secure the holy grail of a series of debates, ended up with a format where no audience interaction was permitted. Furthermore, the same format prevailed for three debates, wasting many of the talents of the respected and impartial moderators.

Alarmingly, it looks as if, even at this early stage, the parties seem happy to repeat the process next time round. At the launch of Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh's magisterial 2010 Election Guide last night in Westminster, the Lib Dems' chief election strategist, Danny Alexander, Labour's election planner, Douglas Alexander, and Andrew Cooper, founder and director of Populus Polling and a former adviser to the Conservative Party, all agreed that the formats had worked pretty well, thank you very much.

Douglas Alexander suggested that Labour had benefited from giving Nick Clegg the chance to "cannibalise" David Cameron's "change" appeal, but all were content with the format, citing high audience viewing figures as evidence that the arrangement wasn't broke, so they weren't minded to fix it.

The message, from these trusted party figures, was clear – come the next election, normal service, determined by a cartel of party negotiators whose cautious instincts often coincide, will be resumed.

Viewers and broadcasters should not be content with this. Even in April, the debates seemed, at times, like a slightly quaint British impersonation of an American innovation – with Clegg and Cameron competing to be the fresh-faced JFK to Brown's jowly Nixon. In five years' time, such staged encounters will look absurd, and they risk wasting the unique potential that live television has in providing an opportunity for scrutiny of those who aspire to positions of political power. Faced with a format which hasn't moved on in five years – should this parliament run its allotted course – voters could decide to switch off.

If television is to retain its position as the pre-eminent medium for political interrogation, it needs to keep politicians on their toes, and, as in every other area, think of the viewers, rather than the participants.

Next time, broadcasters need to stick to their guns and be ready to insist on a more variegated set of debates. After all, debates, like the election itself, belong to the voters. They don't belong to the politicians.

Instead of following America, which beat us to the televised debate punch by a mere half-century, British broadcasters could innovate. Imagine Clegg, Cameron and Ed Miliband sitting down in a room, After Dark-style, with, say, David Aaronovitch, Steve Richards or Laura Kuenssberg to keep things moving. No time limits or gimmicks, just the normal rules that govern normal human conversation. Or whatever. Let the best brains in broadcasting and politics aim for a set of different formats that deliver something different for the voting viewer.

I can already feel cautious media advisers in Westminster baulking at exposing their leaders to such a range of formats. They should relax. The truth is that all of the current party leaders are natural communicators, at ease with more naturalistic formats. Stripped of the need to stare down the barrel of a camera to fake an emotional connection, or to cram in anecdotes within their allotted time limit, they would be free to behave and come across like the normal human beings they are – which is surely the aim of every modern politician.

David Mills is a former Labour special adviser and TV producer.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496