The winner takes it all?

The compromise reached on televised debates is a messy one. Signe Norberg draws a comparison with Sweden.

The rather messy agreement on the televised debates raises a lot of questions on the consequences of the debates for the election process and on its effect on voters. While it is generally agreed that the direct effect of televised debates is limited, experience from other countries tells us they can hold consequences for long-term trends in public perception. This is where one can look to Sweden and see how its proportional representational system has shaped political debate to the extent it could be argued they have now lost their impact.

The Swedish example

Historically Sweden has had a relatively robust parliamentary system with its four per cent hurdle for parties to gain a seat in its one parliament chamber. More or less the same seven political parties have been in parliament since the late 1980s. However, this changed in the 2010 election as the Sweden Democrats passed the hurdle, bringing the total number of parties to eight.

This increasingly pluralistic system of representation is a consequence of a more volatile electorate – much akin to the British political landscape, where we have seen a surge of smaller or new parties gain a larger percentage of the vote.

The seven Swedish party leaders during one of the debates in 2010

TV debates have become a vital part of the election campaign in Sweden. The norm of televised debates is that all the parties with seats in Parliament participate in the final debates.

In recent years the number of debates has increased, arguably to accommodate the increase in participants and political parties. In 2010 there were six debates; four major debates between all the seven parties, and two debates with only the party leaders of the two main parties participating. In 2014 this grew to nine debates; one focusing on educational policy (with five parties participating), five debates between all eight parties in parliament, and three debates between the two main parties. This increase resulted in eight opportunities for the electorate to hear from the two major parties (the Prime Minister did not participate in the one focusing solely on educational policy in 2014) and six occasions for the other parties to participate alongside them.

A recent House of Commons briefing described the Swedish debates as “essentially joint press conferences”. This description implies that with so many participants, there is less debate or discussion of policy, but rather a series of statements made to the electorate. The Swedish debates certainly remain a primary platform for Swedish political parties to vocalise and distinguish their policies from the other parties, especially when focused on topics like education, but the challenge of ensuring true debate with so many participants is something that producers of the seven-way debate on 2nd April in the UK will certainly have to tackle.

Rather than leading to a proportional increase in the number of debates to the number of participants in the UK, it is interesting to note that the negotiation progress between the broadcasters and the political parties has resulted in a more fragmented arrangement. The British electorate will only hear from the two main parties on three occasions, and the degree to which minor parties are included is not consistent across the new format. This stands in contrast to Sweden’s eight opportunities with almost the same number of participants.

What we can see already is that the new agreement for the 2015 debates is likely to produce less of a straightforward policy discussion. It will be interesting to see how the debates will be received by the electorate and whether the changes to the 2015 debate format will become standard for the next general election.

This will also in part depend on the outcome of the election. The Liberal Democrats and the SNP have argued for the introduction of proportional representation, and either may make this the condition of a coalition. Meanwhile neither the Conservatives nor Labour have an interest in moving away from ‘first-past-the-post’. Should either of the two main parties win an outright majority, the seven-way debate may merely represent an isolated instance of a pluralistic debate. However, should the smaller parties garner further support in this election, or form part of a coalition, pluralistic debate may well become the standard format for future televised debates.

All and all, regardless of the outcome this spring, one thing is for certain – TV debates are here to stay as a part of British politics.