It’s a simple proposition: ITV wants Boris Johnson to take on Jeremy Corbyn in an election debate on 19 November. They represent the two biggest parties and are the two men most likely to be prime minister after the 12 December election. But it has already provoked protests from the smaller parties – most notably the Liberal Democrats who are all over social media demanding #DebateHer in the interests of their leader Jo Swinson – and there is the possibility of legal action from others who are being excluded.
My take is from an editorial, not a legal, standpoint, and I am in favour of what ITV are proposing – subject to them doing what all broadcasters are required to do, which is to be fair across the campaign as a whole. This debate should be part of a series of prime-time events, which is what ITV says it’s planning. An election is a time when the public service organisations are scrutinised intensely by politicians and by regulators, and they do have to use their stopwatches to ensure that airtime is balanced: the Conservatives and Labour would expect to have an equal allocation of time on the BBC, ITV, Sky, Channel 4 and Channel 5. The number of Party Election Broadcasts is also determined by a rigid and consistent allocation across the channels.
But this doesn’t mean that all parties are treated equally in terms of that airtime. The past performance of each one is taken into account, with a strong factor being how they did in the previous general election; and, although broadcasters are expected to keep an eye on other elections and current opinion polls, there will be an objective set of reasons for the airtime given to each party and the ratios will be different between the bigger parties and the smaller ones.
This is where the Lib Dems hit a problem. In the 2017 general election, the Conservatives had 42 cent of the vote and Labour had 40 per cent – while the Lib Dems were on 7.4 per cent. Within parliament, the Lib Dems were only one-third of the size of the SNP. This is a sharp contrast with ten years ago, when the Lib Dems were unequivocally the third force in British politics with a much bigger number of MPs and a massively higher share of the vote – hence the Brown, Cameron and Clegg debates being relatively uncontroversial in their format.
I therefore struggle to see editorially that there is a case for Jo Swinson being in the Johnson-Corbyn debate without the SNP also being invited; and if the Lib Dems are citing the European election results as evidence of their current popularity then logically that could also bring in the Brexit Party – who came first in the poll in May 2019. In other words, a three-way debate risks being the least viable option – and we’d end up heading for the multiparty experience of the 2017 campaign.
It’s possible to argue, of course, that this is simply a reflection of the fractured political world we live in. But the seven-way debate organised by the BBC in Cambridge in the last election is a warning of the bear pit that is created when too many people are fighting for the microphone – and the whole experience was frustrating for voters and politicians alike. It introduces new unfairnesses too: Plaid Cymru, which received with 164,000 votes, was given equal treatment with the Conservatives (13.6m votes) and Labour (12.9m). The Tories were faced with two hostile nationalists, though Northern Ireland – where the DUP became UK-wide kingmakers – was excluded altogether.
So the question for all of us is whether a debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn alone would be of value – if it is accompanied by another prominent programming that reflects the other parties. Since it is the most likely choice we face about who will lead the country, I believe it would; but ITV will not have an easy time in getting the two contenders into their studio unscathed by legal or political flak.