Time to think outside the box? Image credit: Randy Cox
Great news this morning that the deadlock around the televised electoral debates has started to creak open. Thus far, political parties of every colour have been setting out with an approach that may risk them losing the debates before they have started. At the heart issue is a collective action problem here: Whilst the format and line-up of the debates matters hugely for individual political parties in terms of any advantage (or disadvantage) they are at in terms of the others; every single political party will be tarnished if they aren’t able to collectively find a way of presenting the key electorial issues in front of the country. Even the Greens, who until now (ironically) benefited from their exclusion from the debates, need the bigger democratic boat to stay afloat.
Events so far have done little to dispel the popular caricature of Westminster as a self-interested shambles where parties would rather fall into power through a collective shrug of the shoulders, than be the losers in a keenly fought campaign which genuinely captures the public imagination. Whilst there’s plenty to say about which party has done better or worse on positioning themselves in relation to the debates, it’s hard to find any party to praise in terms of moving the situation forward as a collective action problem.
I can’t help wondering if there has been an imagination failure here. There are a lot of different ways to organise a debate; and strong facilitators prove day-in-day-out that a meaningful and effective discussion doesn’t have to be structured in single, blue-print way between a maximum of two people. And you know what? It might be a thoroughly good thing if the televised sessions didn’t feel like the debating chamber of the Oxford Union; didn’t feel like the US presidential election debates; and didn’t feel like the multi-party debates in other countries either.
Perhaps it’s time to consider something different. A little bit off-beat; a little bit British. It seems that the broadcasters currently hold the cards in terms of setting the terms of what might happen. The politicians are falling over themselves to say how up-for-it and unintimidated by the other parties they all are. So, broadcasters, why not challenge them a bit? Drawing on Britain’s fine televisual history, here are three quirky ideas to liven up the TV debates:
I’d suggest that one path through the collective action problem of these televised debates might be to make them a bit more fun. If you are taking the model of a dry ‘debating chamber’ type event then advantage can be weighed and measured by seconds of airtime; and you end up having a conversation about who’s podium is higher which makes everyone look rather pathetic. If you take inspiration from our rich tapestry of broadcasting history you’ll find there are a lot of ways to steal the show. As you make a debate more open and less predictable, the possibilities for any party to make it ‘their night’ are only limited by imagination.
There’s an opportunity for broadcasters to apply a bit more creativity to this problem, to give these television debates a unique British flavour, and to breathe fresh life into our political debates whilst they are at it.