The past week has again been full of stories about the political brinksmanship surrounding the Leaders Debates ahead of the forthcoming election. Historically, the UK has lagged behind other countries in holding debates designed for leaders to clash before an election, which perhaps results from our parliamentary, rather than presidential, political system. However as politics in the UK has changed and the role of party leaders has become increasingly dominant, there is increasingly an expectation from the public that party leaders will be at the heart of any election campaign.
The creation of the Leaders Debates in 2010 serve as a manifestation of that trend, and followed years of negotiations, with the closest predecessor to those in the UK being in 2005, where Tony Blair, Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy were each grilled by David Dimbleby on BBC. Previous Prime Ministers such as Thatcher, Major and Blair had all rejected the chance to engage in a leaders debate although, and perhaps uniquely Thatcher also turned down an invitation from Callaghan to debate in 1979 when she was Leader of the Opposition, explicitly arguing that such debates would be too presidential for the UK.
At the last election, the debates undoubtedly had a significant impact on the election campaign, even if the impact on results was more understated. The primary storyline over the course of the 2010 debates was ‘Cleggmania,’ which ended with the Liberal Democrats seeing an increase in their share of the vote, but actually a reduction in their number of MPs. Despite receiving large TV audiences, the way that the debates came to characterise the campaign as a whole received criticism from some quarters. As a result, that the second series of debates has proved to be in some ways more problematic perhaps isn’t surprising; the second US Presidential Debate took place in 1976, some 16 years after the inaugural clash between Nixon and JFK.
Of course, it isn’t just leaders debates that get people engaged with politics at election time. Most constituencies across the country hold hustings, where candidates for Westminster vie with one another to prove their local knowledge and get voters backing their campaign. Hustings used to actually serve as the formal mechanism for the nomination of a candidate to public office. Whilst this formal role has long since been replaced, the chance to bring together representatives from political parties to verbally joust and debate remains important for any representative democracy.
In addition to leaders debates, other policy areas are now opened up to nationwide hustings too. In 2010, for example, in addition to the clashes between Brown, Cameron and Clegg, debates were held on foreign affairs, crime, the environment, business, health, education, immigration and trust in politics, in addition to the high-profile Chancellors’ Debate.
As part of our ongoing activity to ensure that the needs of the charity sector remain firmly on the political agenda throughout the election campaign, CAF has partnered with ACEVO to host the Social Leaders Debate, which will serve as a hustings for the voluntary sector. Taking place at Church House in Westminster, we’ll be joined by representatives from the Conservatives (Rob Wilson MP), the Green Party (Bill Rigby), Labour (Lisa Nandy MP), Lib Dems (Tom Brake MP) and UKIP (Nathan Gill MEP) for a discussion about the future of the sector, and each representative will have the chance to explain what their policies would mean if they emerge successful in May.
Shortly beforehand, we’ll be publishing the results of research seeking to explore the mood in the sector, including investigating levels of optimism amongst charity leaders, and what their primary aims and concerns are for the duration of the next Parliament. With MPs and candidates across the country already in the middle of gruelling campaigns, it’s vital to ensure that they are attuned to the concerns of charities in their constituency.
Equally, it’s important for charities to have insight into what the result of the election (and this year the possibilities seem endless) might mean for sector policy. Whilst the Social Leaders Debate aims to draw out the positions that each party is taking, it won’t be until manifestos are published that charities have a better idea about where each party stands. We will of course be bringing analysis of manifestos and what they mean for the sector as and when each is published.
In the meantime, if you’re interested in finding out more about the Social Leaders Debate, you can read about it and register by clicking here.