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Smaller parties could be overwhelmed in UK election TV leadership debate | 2024 general election

Smaller parties could be overwhelmed in UK election TV leadership debate |  2024 general election


The Lib Dems, Greens and SNP are at risk of being left out of the televised leadership debate as broadcasters plan to focus on the two head-to-head battles between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer.

According to broadcasting sources, ITV is conducting a debate featuring only Labor and Conservative leaders, in accordance with the format requested by the Labor Party.

A head-to-head debate format could benefit Labor. Because it ensures that Starmer does not have to stand on stage and face criticism from smaller left-wing parties on issues such as green funding or the Israel-Gaza war. It could also harm Reform UK, the reborn Brexit party that is fighting for airtime for its anti-immigration message.

The BBC is likely to adopt a similar approach, but its public funding makes it politically tricky to exclude smaller parties. One solution would be to give leaders of smaller parties airtime for Question Time Q&A in front of a live audience, as was done in past elections. There could also be a wider BBC debate involving up to seven political parties. Although in the last election none of the major political parties sent their leaders to the event.

Broadcasters are confident they can exclude smaller parties from the stage after a court ruling concluded there was no legal basis to force ITV to include the Lib Dems and SNP in debates at the 2019 general election. The High Court said the format of election debate programs was an editorial matter for broadcasters and media regulator Ofcom. Broadcasters can meet fairness requirements by giving small groups airtime on different programs.

Labor has signaled its intention to have Starmer take part in just two leadership debates during the election campaign. This means ITV and the BBC will be rushing to decide on the format and be the first to be broadcast. Sunak proposed six debates, once a week until polling day, and accused Starmer of being scared. But with an overwhelming lead in the opinion polls, there is little incentive for the Labor leader to take that risk.

As a result, smaller TV broadcasters are also likely to miss out, with Sky News and GB News unlikely to get Starmer and Sunak on the same stage at the same time.

Instead, Starmer confirmed he would take part in a Sky News Q&A with voters in Grimsby on Friday night. He earlier told a news channel: I could have 100 debates with Rishi Sunak and I know what he's going to say. He will tell you that everything is fine, the cost-of-living crisis is over, and there are no problems with health care.

Televised debates take up several days during the campaign and keep party leaders away from constituency visits and other forms of media. One person with direct knowledge of the leadership debates said politicians see them as an exercise in not making mistakes rather than an opportunity to demonstrate their leadership credentials to a large TV audience. Party leaders are rehearsing lengthy debates with aides pretending to be opposition politicians.

While some other countries have independent organizations agreeing on the format of election debates, the UK has always relied on ad hoc negotiations between political parties and TV broadcasters. The first televised debate took place in 2010 between Conservative, Labor and Liberal Democrat leaders. This introduced the public to Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems briefly surged on the back of Cleggmania.

The Tories later criticized the broadcast, in which David Cameron had a majority, starting a rolling debate over the format of the debate that has continued since then. In the 2015 general election, seven party leaders appeared on the same stage and debated.

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Theresa May pulled herself out of the leadership debate during the 2017 general election, only to find it added to the confusion surrounding the Conservative Party campaign. She later expressed her regret about this decision. She should have done a TV debate. I didn't do that because I saw them suck the lifeblood out of David Cameron's campaign.

Parties that are behind in the opinion polls also tend to want more debate. Lynton Crosby, who has overseen several Tory election campaigns, kept Boris Johnson's debate appearances to a minimum during the 2019 election campaign on the grounds that they could derail a campaign that was already heading towards victory.

Crosby's protege Isaac Levido is in charge of this year's Tory election campaign, and with the Conservatives facing defeat, the party has rediscovered its appetite for debate.




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