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7 March 2015

Labour pledges law to ensure debates happen at every election

Labour are trying to keep the debates in people's minds - but if they're not careful, they run the risk of making fools themselves

By Stephen Bush

A Labour government would legislate to make the televised debates a permanent part of public life, the party has announced. Speaking to the Observer, Ed Miliband said:

In recent days the British public has been treated to the unedifying and tawdry spectacle of a Prime Minister seeking to duck out of the TV debates he once claimed to support with great enthusiasm.

Yesterday the broadcasters made it clear they would not be cowed by his tactics but it is wrong for them and the British public to have governing parties use this kind of pressure in campaign periods.

It is time to ensure, once and for all, that these debates belong to the people not the Prime Minister of the day. I am determined that no Prime Minister from whatever party should ever again be allowed to play fast and loose with these debates which are necessary in a healthy, modern democracy. It is time to do what so many other countries do and put on the planning of debates on a clearly established footing so that there can be no doubt that they will take place and people get the opportunity to make up their own minds about candidates for the post of Prime Minister.

What’s the thinking here? The Labour leadership calculate that having the debates front and centre is now good news for them, almost regardless of what the story is. (The problem for Labour is that, while David Cameron’s self-serving behaviour is not a great look, it’s difficult to stretch the issue out across multiple days, which is why Downing Street believe they can get away with welshing on the debates.)  

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In truth, the proposals are significantly less draconian than the top line of “Labour to force parties to take part in debates” would suggest. What the party is actually planning to do is to give the televised debates the same footing as party political broadcasts – a set number, at specific times – making the brinkmanship deployed by Cameron impossible to replicate in the future. 

But it runs the risk of making Labour look silly. The plans raise more questions than they answer: not least what happens in the event of a second election should the contest in May prove inconclusive. It has the feeling of an idea that has been sketched out on the back of a fag packet – and it could be that the laughing and pointing that Cameron has been subject to now turns to Ed Miliband.