TV leaders’ debates ‘should become part of the fabric of major political events’

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Election debates on TV have a significant impact on voters’ decision making and should become part of the fabric of major political events, new research argues.

The first comprehensive analysis of the 2015 debates, carried out by researchers at the University of Leeds and published today, found the leadership debates had reached sections of the population least likely to be touched by the rest of the campaign – including younger and first-time voters.

The researchers are now calling on every party leader to make a public commitment to take part in TV debates in 2020 and suggest that televised debates should take place ahead of crucial decisions of constitutional, domestic and foreign policy, such as regional devolution or the looming EU referendum.

Five samples of 2,000 people were questioned about what they wanted from the debates at five key points: ahead of the election campaign, after the seven-leader debate, the five-leader debate, the Question Time broadcast, and after voting closed.

When asked after polling day which three sources of information had helped them in understanding party policies, the TV debates were rated higher (45%) than newspapers (30%), party leaflets (15%), radio (11%) and social media (10%). The debates were also considered more helpful than TV interviews with politicians (42%), and only slightly less useful than television news (51%).

More than half of those describing themselves as “not very” or “not at all” interested in politics still indicated that they planned to watch the first debate, on ITV, between all seven main party leaders. It was seen by 7.3 million viewers – a 28.5% audience share. 

Professor Stephen Coleman, from the University of Leeds’ School of Media and Communication, led the research team. He said: 

“It is clear the 2015 TV election debates performed a crucially important civic role, reaching sections of the population least likely to be touched by the rest of the campaign; helping people acquire the information they need to make meaningful choices and thereby boosting the electorate’s confidence.

“At the next general election, the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties – and maybe others – will each be led by different leaders from those who participated in the 2015 debates. They should nail their colours to mast and commit to TV debates as soon as possible. Early negotiation about arrangements for 2020 can then begin.

“We found that many voters feel they have a right to see the party leaders debate on television – the default assumption should now be that debates happen. Debates should become part of the fabric of major political events.”

In their report: The 2015 Televised Election Debates: Democracy on Demand?, Professor Coleman and his colleagues focus on what people actually want to gain from election communication, as opposed to more traditional notions of “what voters need to know”.

“Party communication strategists and broadcasters negotiate with one another about media events that will allow each to present what they consider the voters need,” they wrote. “The organisation of TV election debates tends to be shaped strategically: by politicians who will only take part if they are convinced that the terms of engagement favour them; and by broadcasters who have their own ideas about what makes ‘good television’.

“We identified a series of demands people said they needed from the debates in order to perform the role of informed electors.”

Asked at various stages of the campaign whether these five demands were met by the debates, the researchers found that relatively low expectations were boosted after each of the debates. For example, the need to be offered a clear choice and the requirement for direct and understandable statements by the leaders rose by 24% and 14% respectively between pre-debate and post-election surveys.

These increases were most marked among the groups of people describing themselves as ‘not very’ or ‘not at all’ interested in politics.

But no such improvements were found in voters’ low expectation of being engaged or talked to on their own terms by the party leaders.

Far from finding apathetic or disengaged younger and first-time voters, researchers found that the expectations and assessments of such electors were, on balance, more hopeful and positive than those of their more jaded elders. 

And after polling day, of those who said they'd been influenced by any media sources, 52% of 18 to 24-year-old respondents said the TV election debates were among the three most helpful, compared with 44% of over-65s. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, social media was used more by younger voters too: 45% of 18 to 24-year-olds went online during the first debate to discuss it, compared with 11% of over-55s.

Dr Ruth Fox is Director and Head of Research at the Hansard Society, a political research and education charity set up to strengthen parliamentary democracy and encourage greater public involvement in politics. She said: 

“At a time of increasing public dissatisfaction with our democracy, any initiative that engages the public in the electoral process, particularly those who are generally not very interested in politics, should be carefully nurtured. 

“This excellent report demonstrates the civic value of the debates. We need to build on this by ensuring they are a permanent feature of elections and referendum campaigns in the future. The party leaders and broadcasters shouldn't be haggling over whether, when and how to take part.” 

Further information


On the basis of a dozen focus group sessions to establish voters’ information needs, the researchers identified five demands or entitlements that people said they needed from the debates in order to perform the role of democratic citizens. They wanted:

  • to be addressed as if they were rational and independent decision-makers
  • to be able to evaluate the claims made by debaters in order to make an informed voting decision
  • to feel that they were in some way involved in the debate and spoken to by the debaters
  • to be recognised by the leaders who claimed to speak for (represent) them
  • to be able to make a difference to what happens in the political world.

Five nationally representative surveys were then carried out by ComRes with a total of 10,000 eligible voters, to establish if these “entitlements”’ had been met.