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Our 2019 Election Debates

Jonathan Munro

Head of BBC Newsgathering

Televised debates of a sort have featured in every general election campaign since 2010, but the format of the programmes has evolved since then. Politics has changed across much of the UK, with old voting patterns transformed as large parts of the electorate transfer allegiances in different sorts of elections and are tested by different loyalties in referendums. The original three-way debate (best remembered as the “I agree with Nick” encounter) has given way to programmes which involve other parties, such as the SNP, and new areas of policy priorities have emerged - such as Brexit and climate change. So UKIP and the Greens entered the fray. Where UKIP once flourished, the Brexit Party now dominates. Having a whole set of different parties in Northern Ireland offers further complication for the UK-wide landscape. In short, it’s a moving target.

Throughout this period of change, there has been one continuing truth about staging election debates - you simply can’t come up with a formula which pleases everyone. So they can be fiendishly difficult to organise. But it's always worth remembering what research suggests: debates reach parts of the electorate which other programmes often don't. They have a bigger impact on young voters - and for people only marginally interested in politics, who may not bother with any other sort of election coverage, debates alone seem to draw them into the election. For the BBC, engaging people as citizens in that way is a core purpose.

So what are the key issues we wrestle with in mounting programmes like these? Which speakers are included and which are excluded is always a fault line. So too is the composition of the studio audience, there to shape the discussion by posing a question or making a point. Even the choice of venue can be thorny, with some parties saying that this city or that town is too sympathetic to its rivals.

It’s helpful to see the whole of the BBC offer across the board, not just to zero in on one programme. That is, a head-to-head debate between Mr Johnson and Mr Corbyn, a four-way Question Time additionally involving Ms Sturgeon and Ms Swinson, a seven-handed debate where wider views are also heard - and a similar multi-party debate aimed specifically at younger audiences; plus separate debates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The regulatory framework (which is the same as that for other broadcasters) means that we can scrutinise and give coverage to parties in a way that relates to their different levels of electoral support - in other words, parties may have different amounts of airtime and won't all necessarily be included in all programmes in the same way. So potential prime ministers can get more scrutiny - and airtime - than other party leaders. But that judgement is based on real votes cast, not speculation about the upcoming result. It means the Conservative and Labour parties - who between them secured more than 80% of the vote in 2017 - will have more prominence at times than all the smaller parties. That explains why head to head debates are now part of the mix; in 2010, the Liberal Democrats entered the election with more than 60 MPs, having won 22% of the vote - three times higher than they managed at the 2017 general election - and far ahead of the next largest parties, including the SNP, who back then, had just six MPs.

Those two parties - the Liberal Democrats and the SNP - both now claim to be the third party of British politics - the Liberal Democrats because they still have more votes than any UK party apart from the big two; and the SNP, who in the last two parliaments have been easily the third largest party in the Commons. Which of these two claims is more credible? Our view is neither - they are both valid. Equal but different claims for third place, so we respect both. That means the SNP and Liberal Democrat leaders will get significant coverage, roughly equivalent to each other, but not quite as much as the potential Prime Ministers. That explains why we’ve asked all four of these leaders to take part in the unprecedented Question Time special.

Then there are parties whose parliamentary numbers have been relatively small, but, with their distinct politics, have demonstrated electoral support in different ways. They too are important for the democratic debate: Plaid Cymru who campaign for an independent Wales, the Brexit Party which scored a spectacular success in the recent European election campaigning on the biggest issue of this election, and the Green Party who would lay claim to their cause being the biggest of all time - the future of the planet. None of these parties suggest they are on the verge of power, but voters need to hear their arguments. That explains why we have invited them to a seven-handed debate (plus a similar line up for a programme aimed specifically at younger voters.)

The last two general elections have shown that these multi-party debates can be lively, engaging and helpful for the voters. But they don't include every party; why, it's asked, are there no Northern Ireland parties, such as the DUP, who have more MPs than some of those parties in the debates? The fact is, voters there still have a different choice to make than elsewhere in the UK; the DUP have had a prominent role at Westminster recently - but when it comes to the actual ballot paper, they are primarily competing with Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionist party, the SDLP and the Alliance Party rather than Conservatives (who have more limited presence in Northern Ireland), Labour and Liberal Democrats. While they are all contesting seats for the same parliament, it remains a distinct electoral set-up, which means the Northern Ireland parties should - and do - debate each other; it wouldn't be fair for just one of them to get UK-wide prominence... and including all of them would be disproportionate for the majority of viewers everywhere else in the UK.

When it comes to selecting audience members for our UK debates, roughly the same proportionate mantra applies - supporters of the Conservatives and Labour will be roughly equal in most audiences, followed by a smaller number for the SNP and the Liberal Democrats, and a handful for the smaller parties - a three tier approach, if you like.

But with this election there is one extra issue to grapple with. Namely, the majority of people who voted in 2016 backed a departure from the EU. And executing that departure - or not - is the key issue at stake. After all, we’re only having an election because the old parliament couldn’t agree. With that in mind, the complexion of our audiences for network news debates in the venues are - for this election at least - also being weighted to have a slim majority of people who voted Leave over Remain (except for a few young voters who weren’t old enough to vote in the referendum).

To us, this seems fair. We have no recommendation to make, and no side to take. We’ll do our best to give everyone a crack of the whip. And while there’s no perfect way to do it, we hope that the plans we’ve put into place give us the best chance to deliver meaningful debates to large audiences.

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