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by Jenni Davidson
05 November 2019
Electoral Reform society calls for ‘debates commission’ after ongoing controversy over election TV debates

Ballot box - Image credit: Press Association

Electoral Reform society calls for ‘debates commission’ after ongoing controversy over election TV debates

The new speaker of the House of Commons should set up a ‘debates commission’ to stop election TV debates being “held to ransom” by party leaders, the Electoral Commission has said.

The Liberal Democrats lodged a formal complaint to ITV over the weekend after the party’s leader, Jo Swinson, was excluded from the broadcaster’s election debate, which it said was “misrepresenting the current political reality.”

In a letter to ITV chief executive Dame Carolyn McCall, Liberal Democrat president Sal Brinton said that “voters of this country deserve to hear from a Remainer on the debate stage, not just from the two men who want to deliver Brexit.”

The letter also cited section 6.2 of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code which states that “due weight must be given to the coverage of parties and independent candidates during the election period’ and ‘broadcasters must take into account evidence of past electoral support and/or current support”.

The SNP has also slammed proposals by Sky News, which would include the Lib Dems as well as Conservative and Labour but exclude the SNP, the third largest in the current House of Commons.

The proposals would see a debate between Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson – the leader of the fourth party in the Commons – but exclude the SNP, despite that party winning more seats than the Lib Dems in the last two Westminster elections and being the party of the Scottish Government.

The SNP described the decision to exclude it as “disgraceful”.

SNP MP Pete Wishart said: “This utterly unacceptable proposal from Sky News would see the Liberal Democrats front and centre but would silence the SNP, despite us having more members than the Lib Dems.

“People in Scotland are fed up of being ignored – by politicians in Westminster running scared of debate and by broadcasters who fail to recognise their obligations.”

But the chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society has called for an end to the “endless rows” over the format of TV election debates.

Speaking on Radio 4’s World at One, Darren Hughes called for a ‘debates commission’ to enshrine multi-party TV debates as part of the UK’s electoral framework.

He said: “TV debates are becoming more and more important with each election. People aren’t voting with life-long loyalties so getting it right matters. 

“The Question Time special in 2017 had four million viewers – and it helped over a third of them decide how to vote, according to research for the ERS.

“But the debate format cannot be held to ransom by party leaders each time.

“In the present anarchic set-up, so much depends on how broadcasters cut deals with politicians. 

“So much of our politics feels broken because it happens behind closed doors, rather than with voters’ input.

“It’s time for citizens to shape a proper structure for TV debates that will last, and bring these perpetual ‘empty chairing’ rows to an end.   

“Party leaders cannot be allowed to decide each election what to do – we need a more standardised and transparent approach.

“Voter should be guaranteed vibrant, multi-party debates – as well as head-to-heads that reflect how voters are ‘shopping around’ today. 

He added: “Perhaps the next speaker can establish a debates commission, to ensure elections are not a plaything of parties but a tool for voters to learn, engage and hold leaders to account during a campaign.”

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