There have been two big moves from 10 Downing Street in the last week concerning the place of TV debates in the run-up to the general election.
The first was a decision to avoid a debate between the major British parties unless the left-wing Greens were allowed in. The other was a last minute retreat from a promised appearance on Leaders Live, in which youths can put questions to party leaders.
British politics has long been separated from the American brand by a reluctance to hold TV debates between party leaders during an election campaign. Last general election in 2010 this convention was broken when the Labour prime minister Gordon Brown took on the Conservative leader David Cameron and the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg, resulting in a surge of last minute support for the Lib Dems.
The importing of American tactics into our politics has long been opposed in Britain, owed in part to snobberies of both the left and right towards our stateside cousins. Yet the debates proved popular enough that many have demanded their return, and Cameron’s response has provoked outrage, not least from the Labour leader Ed Miliband.
The exclusion of the Green is lamented both by left-wingers unimpressed by Labour and the Lib Dems, and their Tory opponents who believe the environmentalists will undermine Miliband and Clegg. The presence of Ukip, a far right movement that has already stolen two Tory MPs, has presumably led Cameron to believe he has more to lose than gain out of the debate (though Labour have also been hit hard by the Kippers).
Yet his avoidance of the main party debates is perhaps less interesting than his shirking of Leaders Live, which the leaders of the other four parties have already attended over the course of December.
Michael Sani, managing director of Bite The Ballot, the youth vote outfit behind Leaders Live, has condemned the prime minister’s move, saying: “We want more from our politicians when it comes to empowering young people to play a truly active role in their local and national communities.”
But Cameron’s decision to eschew the youth vote makes sound tactical sense for several reasons. Young people largely don’t bother to vote, and if they do they are less likely to be persuaded by right-wing policies.
Figures from Ipsos MORI, a pollster, showed only 44 percent of 18-24 participated in the last general election, compared to three-quarters of those aged 55 and older. Two-thirds of the population are also older than 25, and most of those below that age cannot vote.
Bearing in mind the British population is ageing, a campaign to increase attention on youth votes was always likely to be met frostily by parties who wish to win elections on a scarce supply of time and money.