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Election Debates: Are they worth the fuss?

The election campaigns have officially begun, and the party leaders are all set for the first TV debate this Thursday. But will it really make a difference?

Won’t it be exciting to watch a bunch of political leaders mass-debating on national television? Not according to broadcasters, who claim the new seven-party format will actually be a huge turn-off for viewers.

If they’re looking for ideas to spice things up, might I suggest a sing-off to close the show? It would certainly attract the X-Factor crowd.

Just imagine: Farage singing Kasey Jackson’s ‘Everything’s Turning To White’; The Mili Band with something by Wet Wet Wet; Nick Clegg covering ‘Broken Promises’ by New Order; the Greens tapping along to ‘Kumbayah’, obviously; Nicola Sturgeon and her version of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Go Your Own Way’; and for the finale, David Cameron belting out ‘Cuts Like A Knife’ by Bryan Adams.

When they finish singing, they’ll each have ten seconds to stare earnestly into the camera, mouthing ‘Vote for me’ while they do whatever the mime is for submitting a ballot paper.

That would boost the ratings, surely?

There’s just one problem: any attempt to liven up the debates is missing the point entirely. People don’t tune in to a political discussion expecting riveting television. It’s meant to be a bit dull at times.

Instead, broadcasters should be worrying about just how effective election debates really are, and how they can make them more beneficial for viewers. As it stands, their impact on voting will be negligible, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, anyone prepared to sit through a 90-minute confab is likely to be politically active. The vast majority of viewers will already know which box they’re ticking in May. Only the most open-minded person will remain balanced and honestly appraise each of the leaders – even then, they ‘re unlikely to vote for a particular party on the basis of a television appearance.

It’s actually perfectly normal for us to be swayed by our own biases and values, some of which are built up over a lifetime. They go right to the core of who we are and what we stand for, but they can also make us very stubborn. Political discourse is a perfect outlet for the psychological phenomenon known as ‘confirmation bias’, and we all suffer from it – the strange ability to block out any reasonable argument that conflicts with our own opinions, and listen only to information that reinforces them.

When’s the last time you actually changed your mind about something you believed in deeply?

This selective processing means many of us will come away from the debate with the same opinions, if not more ardent in our views.

It doesn’t help that the novelty of televised debates has faded. In 2010, we were all charmed by Nick Clegg, with his extraordinary gift for addressing members of the public by their first names.

‘Who’s this bloke acting like a normal human being?’ we thought. ‘He seems nice.’ Now look at him, a haunted husk of a man, despised by his own voters after abandoning his key pledge to abolish tuition fees, just so he could taste power in the pocket of the Tories.

The Lib Dem debacle means any leader who shines in the debates will be treated with a healthy amount of caution, effectively nullifying the chance of a repeat. The public won’t be fooled twice. So what surprises, if any, can viewers expect?

All politicians are now highly media-trained, with every little phrase and hand gesture studied by focus groups and experts. The leaders will have a prepared answer for every question in the debate – you may as well be watching a play written by a group of campaign managers, and how lively does that sound?

No-one’s going to blurt out anything controversial – even Farage, who is as much a professional politician as the rest of them. The only excitement will be seeing if Natalie Bennett manages to blurt out anything at all, after her spluttering radio interview recently.

Of course, once the debate is over, each party’s spin machine will kick into action, and that old confirmation bias will mean we all believe whoever we choose to, defeating the point entirely.

There are still a few positives.

TV debates are at least a step towards a more open democracy. The public will get a chance to hear from smaller parties, who are being given a platform normally reserved for Labour and the Conservatives. We’ll be exposed to different outlooks and policies, even if we choose to ignore them. We may also get a small taster of which parties could work in coalition – an increasingly likely prospect after the general election. But, as Clegg proved, sharing power allows parties to adapt their manifestos.

So just how effective will the debates be this time round? As bad as it sounds: it depends. It depends on each individual viewer’s judgement, how receptive they are to new ideas, and how active they are politically. But it’s disconcerting that broadcasters seem to be led by ratings rather than making sure the debates are as valuable as possible for the audience – especially the BBC, which should have licence fee payers in mind.

How can things be improved? It’s quite simple: make the debates compulsory and give the public a say on the format.

At the moment, all the power lies with the politicians, which has allowed David Cameron to dictate which event he’ll turn up for, and on what terms. A prime minister picking and choosing how he’ll be held to account in the run-up to a general election – doesn’t that sound ridiculously Putinesque?

With the public directing the broadcasters, politicians wouldn’t be allowed access to questions. Sure, they could cram in some revision, but they’d still have to hope the right topics came up. We all know their stances on key areas like the economy, education and jobs anyway. It’s when they have to talk about something off the cuff that we really discover what they’re about.

More importantly, we might even get to see that sing-off.

Until something changes, election debates will remain toothless. Right now, they’re a bit like Freshers’ Week: a few lectures, copious note-taking, and seven different parties. By the end of it, you’ve met a few new people who you still suspect might be arseholes, and nobody’s really any the wiser as to how the next term will pan out.

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