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In the run up to a general election speculation often surfaces about the prospect of TV debates between party leaders. In January 2024 Sir Keir Starmer said he would be happy to take part in TV debates.

Before 2010 the UK was considered unusual in developed democracies in not holding televised debates between party leaders during general election campaigns. Contrasts were often made with practices in the United States, where leader debates are well established. There had been discussions about holding debates but no agreement was ever reached.

Televised election debates between party leaders first took place during the 2010 General Election. They were also held during the 2015, 2017 and 2019 general election campaigns. Elections to the Scottish Parliament , Senedd Cymru, and to the Northern Ireland Assembly have also featured televised leaders’ debates. This briefing focuses on TV debates for a UK Parliament election.

2010 General Election

In 2010, broadcasters and the three main parties reached agreement to hold three head-to-head televised debates between the party leaders, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and Nick Clegg.

Although there were complaints that the debates dominated the campaign and overshadowed local campaigning, there was a perception that they were useful and an expectation that they might become a permanent feature of the election process.

2015 General Election

Negotiations for debates in 2015 failed to find consensus. Eventually proposals were agreed between the parties and broadcasters, but they featured only one head-to-head debate between the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and other party leaders. The political landscape in 2015 was different to that of 2010, with more parties laying claim to enough electoral support to warrant being included in any debates.

2017 General Election

The 2017 snap election provided little time to negotiate debate formats. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, quickly ruled out taking part in television debates. Two leaders’ debates took place between other party leaders with the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, declining to take part in one but agreeing to the other. In the second, the Conservative Party sent the then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd.

2019 General Election

The 2019 election also was held at short notice and provided little time for negotiations. One head-to-head TV debate was held between the Prime Minister, by this time Boris Johnson, and Jeremy Corbyn.

Should the debates be formalised?

There is nothing in electoral law that requires televised election debates between party leaders. If they take place, they are a matter for the broadcasters and political parties.

There have been calls for an independent body or commission to be established to ensure TV debates happen during general elections.

For example, an e-petition on creating an independent commission to organise compulsory televised leaders’ debates attracted 143,390 signatures; the e-petition was debated in Parliament on 7 January 2019. The Government’s view was that whether such debates should take place should remain a matter of agreement between political parties and broadcasters and that electoral law should not make them compulsory.

Do they persuade voters?

Surveys of voters have indicated that the leaders’ debates engaged voters (PDF) that would not normally pay as much attention to the election campaign, in particular younger voters. Many voters found them useful in assessing the options before them.

However, a recent study from Harvard Business School found that “presidential or prime ministerial TV debates, campaigns’ most salient events, do not play any significant role in shaping voters’ choice of candidate”.

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