Television debates! What are they good for? Absolutely… well, it depends

The general election campaign is entering its final stages. On Friday, the two main party leaders, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, will for the second time this week go head-to-head in a televised stand-off. People will write angry things on the internet. Mrs May will say “strong and stable”. The nation will engage soberly with serious matters of policy.

Well, sort of. The pair will not actually share a stage during the special edition of Question Time, hosted in York by David Dimbleby. Instead, like in their previous “debate” on Channel 4 on Monday, they’ll take questions from the audience in two consecutive, equally timed slots. Because this is the BBC, the questioners will be carefully selected to reflect the jumble of national opinion – although the angry people on the internet will still say it’s a stitch-up.

Supporters of conventional TV debates, which were first staged in Britain in 2010 after 50 years of wrangling, say they are good for democracy: an opportunity for each side to air its policies and challenge the others’ in the most public forum available. Detractors, on the other hand, say they are vapid, vulgar, that they infantilise their audiences and – because they focus on national leaders – conflict with the UK’s parliamentary voting system.

There is some truth in each of these positions. On the democracy point, it is telling, at least, that incumbent parties tend to be eager to avoid debates (Mrs May ducked a seven-way contest on Wednesday), while challengers are usually keener on them. There is a general perception that governments have more to lose from having their record challenged so publicly, while oppositions stand to gain from appearing on an equal footing.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean such contests have a material effect on election outcomes. A big problem is that they are an absolute bonanza for voters’ cognitive biases, and for many of us tend to simply confirm the opinion we had in the first place. It’s been shown in America that opposing political partisans watching the same debate footage will each conclude confidently that their side “won”, even though this is an objective impossibility. And the more politically engaged someone is, the stronger the polarising effect tends to be.

So why bother with debates at all? Well, they can still be useful, because not every viewer has such strong preconceived opinions. As Stephen Bush of the New Statesman is fond of writing, most people think about politics for four minutes a week and are susceptible to well-targeted messages. And there is some evidence that the 2010 debates – the only time all the main party leaders took part – increased interest in politics that year. So the argument can be made that TV contests are a way for political parties to pick up a few extra floating votes and, who knows, maybe even change the course of the campaign.

Then again, remember Cleggmania? Exactly.

Written by Nick Reading, Senior Account Manager (@NickReading1)

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