The BBC’s Question Time Leaders’ Special may have swung more than a million people’s votes in June’s General Election, according to the first in-depth analysis of its effect on the poll.
A study for the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) by academics at the University of Leeds found that 34 per cent of the programme’s four million-plus viewers said it helped them decide who to vote for. Young people were particularly influenced.
Professors Jay Blumler and Stephen Coleman, and Dr Christopher Birchall from the School of Media and Communication commissioned polling of more than 2,500 people through ComRes, talking to voters before and after they watched the programme.
On all the key metrics which voters saw as important to leaders’ performance, Jeremy Corbyn scored highest. The result saw a Labour surge and a hung parliament.
Younger voters – more of whom were undecided before watching the show – swung most strongly behind the Labour leader after watching the programme.
The study showed a huge surge in youth interest, with 2017 seeing a “decided leap forward” in younger voters’ levels of engagement.
In 2015, just 50 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds said they were fairly interested in politics. But this year the figure jumped to 80 per cent – on a par with older voters. Young viewers’ votes were significantly more influenced by the TV leaders’ debate than older voters.
ERS research shows the Conservatives could have won an overall majority with just 533 extra votes in the nine most marginal constituencies, while a working majority could have been achieved on just 75 additional votes in the right places. It suggests the Question Time Special – among many other factors – could have had an impact on the final outcome.
The authors and the ERS argue that “genuine” head-to-head TV debates must in future be institutionalised into the election process – with all major party leaders expected to appear on them.
Theresa May was criticised for refusing to agree to a head-to-head, live-challenge debate. The BBC’s Question Time Special instead had the leaders going on one at a time, responding to audience questions, rather than political opponents’ challenges.
The report’s authors concluded: “Debate is not only good for democracy, but a necessary condition.
“The Question Time Special, in which the two main party leaders appeared consecutively before a studio audience, was a valuable supplement to head-to-head debate, but not a satisfactory alternative. In the next election voters deserve to have an opportunity to watch both forms of televised debate.”
Darren Hughes, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said: “With over a third of viewers saying the BBC’s election programme influenced their vote, this study shows just how important TV debates have become for general elections in the UK.
“This research is proof that televised election debates are good for our democracy. That over 80 per cent of viewers said they talked about the QT Special with their friends and family shows it has a positive impact on political engagement. And 40 per cent said the programme made them more interested in the campaign. That’s good for all of us.”
The study showed:
- The Question Time Special helped 34 per cent of viewers decide who to vote for – and 30 per cent whether to vote at all.
- Half of viewers felt they knew more about Labour/Tory policies than before, while 46 per cent thought they knew more about Mr Corbyn and Mrs May as people.
- Sixty per cent said it helped them engage in the election debate – but only 52 per cent said they thought leaders provided factual evidence.
- Mr Corbyn was far ahead in engaging viewers in the debate – 33 per cent to Mrs May’s 22 per cent.
- 38 per cent of viewers found Mr Corbyn came across as “understanding people like me”, to just 24 per cent for Mrs May.
- 40 per cent said the QT Special made them “more interested” in the campaign, while 84 per cent of viewers found it “good to talk about”.
- Mr Corbyn’s performance outpolled May among all age groups up to 64-year-olds – on nearly all metrics which viewers saw as important.
- The QT Special mitigated the levels of distrust of politicians among those who viewed it.
But the impact on young people was most profound:
- 38 per cent of 18 to 34-year-old viewers were undecided before watching the programme – compared to just 17 per cent of over-55s – with the TV debate having a bigger impact on younger viewers’ votes.
- 45 per cent of 18-34s said the programme helped them decide who to back, compared to just 26 per cent of over-55s.
- First-time voters were “exceptionally impressed with Corbyn compared to May”. Corbyn outpolled May among 18 to 34-year-olds by 56-13 per cent on “clear speaking”, 50-15 per cent on providing ‘factual evidence’, 61-13 per cent on “understanding people like me”, 56-12 per cent on “engaging me in the debate” and 58-15 per cent on “offering a clear choice”.
- More young people watched the whole QT Special than older age groups, while they also discussed it more: 93 per cent of 18 to 34-year-old viewers talked about it with friends or family.
- 68 per cent of 18-34s said they now knew more about the policies, to 36 per cent of over-55s.
Mr Hughes added: “The Question Time Special had a significant impact of people’s views on the main party leaders, and brought the public much closer to these figures.
“It was the ‘youth surge’ in this election that was arguably most significant, as this study shows. Young people watched the election coverage in large numbers, with a high proportion of young viewers undecided before seeing the QT Special.
“That those viewers then swung in large numbers behind the Labour leader suggests the programme may have had an impact on the final result – particularly when just a few hundred votes in swing seats shifted June’s outcome.”
“This report sets out the major impact of June’s leadership special for the first time. Now it’s time for party leaders and broadcasters to learn from voters’ views and make sure the debates are even better next time.”
The authors concluded by calling for TV debates to be made part of all General Election campaigns:
“Given that citizens benefit from media exposure to politicians who are given time to set out serious political arguments and are faced by meaningful, live challenge from sceptics and opponents, televised debates should not be regarded as an added extra within important democratic processes like election campaigns.
- The Question Time Leaders’ Special was watched by 4.08m people in the week it was aired: http://www.barb.co.uk/viewing-data/weekly-top-30/
- A representative poll of 2,500 GB adults was carried out by ComRes: online fieldwork conducted in two stages (pre-screening and post-screening): 31 May-8 June 2017.
- The metrics (or “entitlements”, in the study) voters valued in leaders for the TV debates were: “Putting their points clearly”, “Providing factual evidence”, “Providing a clear choice”, “Engaging me in the debate”, “Understanding people like me”.
- For further information or interviews, email Media Relations Manager Gareth Dant via firstname.lastname@example.org