Leaving Her Debate Podium Empty, Theresa May Chickens Out of Democracy

The first headline of Britain’s snap general election was Theresa May’s refusal to participate in televised debates with other party leaders in the run-up to the June 8 poll. ITV, Sky and the BBC have pledged to hold debates regardless of whether the Prime Minister shows up. It’s unlikely they would literally “empty chair” May, but her absence would speak volumes to voters. This is the new Iron Lady?

The opposition leapt at the chance to accuse May of weakness and evasiveness about defending her party’s record in government, and her own plans, on the national stage - particularly Jeremy Corbyn and Labour who lag far behind May’s Conservatives in the opinion polls.

May has already u-turned on holding an early election. Labelled #ChickenMay and being harassed on the campaign trail by The Daily Mirror’s man in a chicken suit, she may reconsider taking up her debate podium as well.

The trend of holding leaders’ debates began in the 1960 US presidential election, the bitterly and closely fought contest between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. The slick, groomed Kennedy faced off against an awkward and shady-looking Nixon in a broadcast that decisively tipped the election to JFK.

Democracies including Canada, Australia, France and the Philippines began holding their own election debates, but it took the UK fifty years to get up to date.

Theresa May assumes she will be coronated with a massive parliamentary majority

Gordon Brown was mercilessly ridiculed by the Tories for “bottling” debates, predicting the hapless Brown would be dismantled by PR man David Cameron. But the winner of the 2010 debates turned out to be the dark horse candidate - Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg.

With the Tories unable to shake-off their “Nasty Party” image and Labour’s popularity damaged by the financial crisis, Clegg pitched his party as an alternative distinct from the “same old politics” - a compelling message to voters disgusted by the MPs expenses scandal. Cameron inadvertently gifted the Lib Dems their campaign slogan: “I agree with Nick”.

At one point the Lib Dems even led in the polls. They ended up losing seats, but there was a hung parliament that led to the formation of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. Clegg became an Antichrist of the left and young people for facilitating Tory austerity and reneging on his pledge not to support a tuition fees hike, while Cameron committed to holding an EU referendum to satisfy a Tory right resentful about their party’s compromises.

The 2015 debates including smaller parties were less eventful, most notable for Nigel Farage’s scapegoating of migrants with HIV. But Ed Miliband’s cringeworthy grilling by Jeremy Paxman may have played a role in Labour’s defeat.

In this election Theresa May assumes she will be coronated with a massive parliamentary majority, so probably figures she has nothing to gain from debating, whereas the other leaders have everything to win.

Jeremy Corbyn challenged David Cameron to annual “state of the nation” debates. Labour, facing an Everest-sized mountain to any victory, will pin hopes on Corbyn connecting with voters and articulating Labour’s policies outside of the party bubble.

No doubt Corbyn has played close attention to the French presidential election, with radical left-wing, anti-austerity contender Jean-Luc Mélenchon rising from the fringes via his debate performances.

Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon wants to face down May to lobby for her party’s greater cause of an anti-Brexit Scottish independence. While the Tories seek to make inroads in Scotland, the SNP will mostly retain their monopoly of Scottish seats. The more realistic threat to May than Labour is the spectre of #IndyRef2.

Lib Dem leader Tim Farron positions his party as categorially opposing Brexit. Farron will seek to rebuild the Lib Dems from decimation at the last election by appealing to Labour voters disaffected by Corbyn and Tories with softer views on Europe.

TV debates provide would-be leaders an opportunity to get their message across unvarnished

Critics of TV debates argue that they are a spectacle that dominates the campaign, detracting from the issues and putting style over substance. Alec Douglas-Home suggested they would turn elections into Top of the Pops. But we have come a long way from the time of JFK vs. Nixon.

The debates don’t just interest the political anoraks who will live-tweet and make memes out of them. In 2010, over 9 million people tuned into the debates, in 2015 over 7 million. A majority of viewers were more influenced by the 2015 debates than by TV news coverage or party political broadcasts in deciding their vote.

In a media landscape where the most popular newspapers call on Theresa May to “crush the saboteurs”, TV debates provide would-be leaders an opportunity to get their message across unvarnished rather than spun and stage-managed, while being scrutinised by each other, by the press and - most importantly - by the people.

So will you step up to the podium, Prime Minister, or stay hunkered down in your undemocratic chicken coop?


More about the author

About the author

Jacob Richardson began his career with Disclaimer and writes on culture, politics and society. Politically he is a democratic socialist and Labour Party supporter. His other interests include cinema, psychoanalysis and professional wrestling.

Follow Jacob on Twitter.

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