Government and Politics


TV Debates

Paul Fairclough and Eric Magee

This article considers the extent to which the three televised debates held in 2010 between the leaders of the main UK parties influenced the course of the general election campaign. It also addresses the broader question of whether such broadcasts enhance or detract from the democratic process.


The Liberal Democrats had always pushed for such debates. They clearly felt that they would benefit from the additional exposure gained — not least because their efforts to campaign on an equal footing with the two main parties had always been hindered by issues of unequal funding and media access.


The ICM poll completed on 11 April, 4 days before the first televised debate, showed the Liberal Democrats trailing on 20%, well behind Labour (on 31%) and the Conservatives (on 37%). This was broadly in line with the previous 11 ICM polls taken since July 2009 — in which support for the party had been between 18% and 23%. In the wake of the first televised debate, however, support for the Liberal Democrats rose to 24%, with 51% believing that the Liberal Democrat leader had ‘won’ the opening head-to-head between the leaders of the three main parties. Indeed, 29% felt that Clegg would make the best prime minister (the same number who favoured Cameron).


Although support for the two main parties recovered in the wake of the second and third debates (see Table 1), it was still widely anticipated that the Liberal Democrats would emerge on election night with more MPs than the 62 returned at the 2005 general election.


Table - 1 Who won the three televised debates?
      Who won?  
  Focus of debate Brown Cameron Clegg

First debate

(ITV, 15 April)

Domestic affairs 19% 20% 51%

Second debate

(BSkyB, 22 April)

International affairs 29% 29% 33%

Third debate

(BBC, 29 April)

Economic affairs 29% 35% 27%

Source: ICM instant polling, Guardian, 16, 23 and 30 April 2010



Did they make a difference?

‘What if’ questions are notoriously hard to answer and it is difficult, therefore, to know just ‘what might have been’ had the televised debates not taken place. Ahead of the election, it was widely felt that the Liberal Democrat vote would be squeezed in a battle between a Labour Party fighting to stay in office and defend its legacy, and a Conservative Party ‘detoxified’ and resurgent under the leadership of David Cameron. We should remember also that the Liberal Democrats’ record haul of seats in 2005 had been secured, at least in part, as a result of the backlash against Labour’s decision to take the country to war in Iraq; the Liberal Democrats having been the only one of the three main UK parties to oppose the war.


All of this accepted, it is possible to identify a number of points that could reasonably be offered in support of each side of the argument.



  • While it was widely anticipated that the Liberal Democrat vote would be squeezed, the party increased its share of the vote from 22% in 2005 to 23% in 2010, securing only 2.8 million votes fewer than Labour (6.8 million to Labour’s 8.6 million).

  • This final percentage share of the vote was significantly higher than that reported in the final opinion polls taken in the run-up to the first debate. It was the highest share of the vote for the third party since the 1983 general election, when the SDP–Liberal Alliance polled 25.4%.

  • Even after the first debate only around 24% of those polled by ICM said that they intended to vote Liberal Democrat. A return of 23% should not, therefore, be seen as a failure.

  • Although the Liberal Democrats won fewer seats in 2010 than in 2005 (down 5 at 57 seats), this disappointing return resulted largely from the quirks of the simple plurality system as opposed to any decline in support. This is demonstrated, for example, by the fact that the Liberal Democrats came second in 243 constituencies.


  • The Liberal Democrats only achieved a marginal increase in their share of the popular vote (up from 22% in 2005 to 23% in 2010) in spite of the apparent surge in support for the party in the wake of the first debate.

  • Despite the televised debates, the Liberal Democrats returned fewer MPs in 2010 than in 2005.

  • Although it was generally agreed that the Labour leader, Gordon Brown, performed poorly against Nick Clegg, particularly in the first two debates, the Liberal Democrats only captured five Labour seats. Even with the Labour Party in apparent disarray, the Liberal Democrats still won 201 seats fewer than Labour.

  • 27 of the 57 seats won by the Liberal Democrats appear in the list of the top 200 with smallest majorities, i.e. the result for the Liberal Democrats could easily have been far worse.


Whatever happened to the ‘LibDem surge’?

The simple answer to this question, as we have seen, is that the first televised debate resulted in a ‘Nick Clegg surge’ as opposed to a ‘LibDem surge’. While the party did enjoy a ‘bounce’ in the polls in the wake of the first debate on 15 April, it was the Liberal Democrat leader and not his party’s policies that emerged victorious.


Although Clegg had worked hard to reposition the Liberal Democrats in many areas of policy ahead of the election, the broader public still viewed many of the party’s policies with a degree of suspicion. This was true, for example, of the Liberal Democrat approach to managing immigration — a policy on which the Liberal Democrat leader came under heavy fire during the second televised debate and one that took centre stage in the media post-mortem that followed the election itself (see Box 1).

Providing a platform


While it is tempting to focus on the Liberal Democrats’ failure to capitalise on the brief surge in the polls that followed the first debate by winning more seats in the Commons, such an approach runs the risk of missing the ‘bigger picture’. The surge was far more about public perceptions of the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, than it was about voting intentions, and it is perhaps in this light that we should answer the question of whether or not the televised debates were a ‘game-changer’. The debates and the broader campaign itself were about more than simply winning votes and seats. They were about making the broader public (and perhaps also senior figures within the other main parties) see the Liberal Democrats as a ‘party of government’: a credible alternative to the big two, or at least a credible coalition partner for one or the other.


Prior to the debates, the public perception of the Liberal Democrat leader had been shaped largely by reports of his sexual conquests in earlier life and by seeing Clegg struggling to make himself heard over the heckling of Labour and Conservative backbenchers at Prime Minister’s Questions. It was significant, therefore, that the regulations governing the televised debates — not least the rules limiting audience participation — meant that Clegg was able to speak, uninterrupted for extended periods.


‘I agree with Nick’

Clegg’s credibility was also enhanced by the way in which his fellow party leaders, in particular Gordon Brown, appeared to court his support in the first debate by supporting the positions adopted by the Liberal Democrat leader. If one had to pick a single phrase that summed up the reporting of that first debate more than any other it would have to be ‘I agree with Nick’. Although that precise phrase was in fact only used twice during the 90-minute broadcast (on both occasions by Gordon Brown) it appeared to sum up the approach taken by both the incumbent prime minister and, to a lesser extent, David Cameron, towards the Liberal Democrat leader. Brown, in particular, appeared keen to align himself with Clegg at every opportunity (see Box 2).


The ‘Clegg surge’ that resulted, in part, from Brown’s approach in the first debate prompted the Labour leader to adopt a rather different line in the second debate broadcast on Sky. While the Sky debate saw the prime minister using the phrase ‘Nick, you’re right’ at one point, Brown’s approach was to seek to highlight the differences (as opposed to the similarities) between his position and that of the Liberal Democrat leader (see Box 3): an approach that was carried through to the third debate. By that stage, however, the damage had been done.



Do televised debates enhance democracy?



  • Televised debates provide an additional avenue for political participation. Well over 9 million people watched the first debate, with around 4 million watching the second and well over 8 million watching the third.

  • The radio phone-ins, newspaper articles and other media coverage that came in the wake of each debate provided additional opportunities for voters to engage with the general election campaign.

  • The debates gave equal voice to the Liberal Democrats, a party often disadvantaged by its relative lack of campaign finance and limited media access.

  • The debates gave an opportunity for selected audience members to quiz the party leaders on some of the detail behind their manifesto pledges.



  • While televised debates make some sense in US presidential elections, where voters are electing a singular (or ‘unitary’) executive, they make little sense in the UK where voters are choosing their constituency MP.

  • The quality of democratic participation involved in watching television is, at best, limited.

  • The debates gave the Liberal Democrats more exposure than could be justified either by the party’s performance at earlier elections or by the number of seats they ultimately won in 2010.

  • Other parties such as the SNP, Plaid Cymru and UKIP were excluded from the three debates. The SNP argued that this put it at a distinct disadvantage in parliamentary contests north of the border.

  • The separate Scottish and Welsh debates featured the leaders of the SNP (Alex Salmond) and Plaid Cymru (Ieuan Jones) respectively, but neither had the opportunity to go toeto- toe with Brown, Cameron and Clegg.



Although the three televised debates did not bring the significant electoral gains for the Liberal Democrats that had been anticipated, they clearly enhanced Nick Clegg’s reputation and credibility. This may have made it easier for the Conservatives to conclude a coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats when faced with the hung (or ‘balanced’) parliament that resulted from the 2010 general election.


However, while the debates provided a point of interest in the campaign and an additional avenue for political participation, they appeared somewhat at odds with a parliamentary system under which citizens vote not for their preferred prime minister, but for their constituency MP. Moreover, the decision to exclude smaller parties from the three main debates led to accusations of media bias.