06/11/2010 11:46 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Televised Debates are Bad For Democracy

There seems to be a consensus that the UK's first televised debates that everyone was so excited about were good for our democracy. I would hesitate before making such a hasty judgment.

I concede that they got people talking about the election -- although that was always likely to happen in an election which resulted in a hung parliament where no party had a clear majority. It's also certainly true that voter registration was up, turnout was also slightly up, and these developments are not to be sniffed at. But I really wonder whether these aren't short-term gains at the expense of long-term damage. Most of the arguments in their favor have a whiff of the 'all publicity is good publicity' about them.

Firstly, there is the damage they did to the rest of the campaign. They had rendered it a sideshow. The agenda for the whole of the rest of the parties' campaigning was subsequently led by the debates. Witness how power flowed to Nick Clegg since the first debate. You seen it in the Conservatives' new tactics: the Lib Dems are making the electoral running, so the Conservatives had to follow. So much is clear in the way that David Cameron and the Conservatives rhetorically changed tack to court the small-l liberal vote. The change of emphasis was palpable -- Cameron and his Justice Spokesman Dominic Grieve were out trying to hit a number of liberal sweet spots, such as preventing councils for snooping on people for trivial matters, strengthening the right to trial by jury, and reviewing the police's use of stop-and-search powers. His message was that "if you want a government with liberal values, vote Conservative." One journalist asked Cameron whether he ever thought he would be chasing a Lib Dem bandwagon.

But it's worth asking where the Liberal Democrats' new power came from, and whether it was deserved. It comes, essentially, from favorable movements in the polls which come, in turn, from Nick Clegg's showing in the debates. The power of these debates to set the agenda of British politics is extraordinary. But the criteria by which we judge the debate victors are the some of the fluffiest and least deserving. For example, many analysts agreed that Clegg did well in the first debate because he had the knack of staring into the camera and remembered questioners' first names, something which Cameron had improved on the second time round. Others argued that Cameron may have lost out in the first debate because his hair looked too smart, and it played up to his too-slick image, so he ruffled it a bit more for the second one. The scary thing is that these kind of judgments are now more important than ever in British politics, thanks to the debates' preeminence. Is this good for Britain?

Secondly, it marginalizes the poor campaigning MPs, the life-blood of our democracy, who slog from house to house in all weathers, trying to win a local mandate. There are over a thousand of them each election, but I fear that it matters not a bit what they say any more -- all attention is on the party leaders (or their hair). This is not good for local issues, and not good for diversity in the parties as it concentrates power up from the bottom to the top of the parties. There is less point campaigning as a dissenting candidate than ever, and in the long run I fear that these independent spirits will be deterred from entering politics altogether. That will mean a narrower range of opinions are represented at Westminster, and the whole political process will be at risk of losing out on vital talent it might otherwise have had.

Thirdly, it's bad for our party system. The debates turn our elections into Presidential-style contests. Is the attention these debates win for their party leaders proportional to their power to affect the future of the country? I'd argue that it's not. Unlike a true Presidential system in which a President tries to implement his or her agenda, the MPs are still very important. They are a significant constraint on what the party leaders can achieve, and on what legislation they will attempt to pass in the first place. Unlike in a Presidential system, they are inevitably the personnel who will make up the next government. Unlike a President, a party leader, however slick, will only have his MPs to choose from when forming the next government. So the attention which the debates give to the party leaders misrepresents their power in the political process.

Sure, debates are exciting. Exciting for politicians, who get more attention, and exciting for journalists, who have a bigger election story than they ever have done before. The initial enthusiasm for them is not surprising. But I would advise caution. I think that in ten or twenty years down the line, the damage will show, in the values by which we judge those who we choose to lead us.

Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.