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Jeremy Corbyn backs Sky News’ election TV debate campaign

8:54 am, 18th September 2018

The Labour leader told Sky News: “I welcome any move that will guarantee general election debates so that voters can hear directly from those putting themselves forward to lead the country.”

Other senior MPs said TV debates “energised” election campaigns and should become a “permanent fixture” instead of being arranged in “backroom deals” between politicians and broadcasters.

Under the Sky News proposals, in which we call for head-to-head debates between the leaders of the main political parties, a Leaders’ Debate Commission (LDC) would:

:: Set the format and rules of the debates

:: Handle moderation

:: Outline the criteria for political party participation

:: Ensure the objectivity of audiences

:: Steer negotiations between broadcasters and parties

Sky News editor at large Adam Boulton has delivered a letter outlining the proposals to Theresa May at 10 Downing Street and Conservative sources have indicated they are considering their response.

The Sky campaign also includes a petition to parliament. After 10,000 signatures, petitions get a response from the government and after 100,000 they are considered for a Commons debate.

Following Sky News successfully lobbying for TV debates in the 2010 election campaign, three head-to-head clashes were held between Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

But since then broadcasters and politicians have failed to agree on terms and there were no head-to-head debates between the leaders of the main parties in the 2015 or 2017 general election campaigns.

The first party leader to back the Sky News campaign was the Lib Dems’ Sir Vince Cable, who praised the 2010 TV election debates and said: “They energised the whole election campaign.

“It’s surely right that the ground rules should be decided in a non-political independent environment of the kind you suggest.

“We should now be putting this structure in place so there’s no argy-bargy in the few weeks before the next general election.”

For the Tories, former Downing Street director of communications Katie Perrior said Mrs May had been wrong to refuse to take part in TV debates in last year’s general election campaign.

“Having called the election, to then refuse to debate against her political opponents was a mistake,” she said of her former boss on TalkRADIO.

Significantly, the current director of communications at 10 Downing Street, former TV executive Robbie Gibb, was editor of the BBC’s election debate during last year’s election campaign and a big supporter of such debates in his former role.

Mr Corbyn’s unequivocal backing for the Sky News campaign will increase the pressure on the prime minister to drop her opposition to debating with the Labour leader in a future general election campaign.

From the Conservative back benches, leading Eurosceptic MP Peter Bone said the Sky News proposal was closely aligned to one he has already tabled in a private member’s bill which is due to have its second reading in the Commons in March.

When he first tabled the bill, its sponsors included the former TV presenter Esther McVey, now in the cabinet as work and pensions secretary, and another veteran Eurosceptic Tory MP, Sir Christopher Chope.

He now hopes to attract more sponsors.

“These debates should not be left to the political parties,” he said.

“They should be decided by an independent commission and we need to get this sorted out, not in the frenzy of a general election but before.”

The one dissenting voice amid a chorus of support came from the Tory deputy chairman, James Cleverly, who tweeted: “I’m not a fan of leaders debates. Reinforces the incorrect perception that we have a presidential system in the UK.

“TV companies love them because they drive ratings.

“If you want to see PM and Leader of the Opposition going head to head tune in to #PMQs each week.”

From Labour, opposition whip Thangam Debbonaire told Sky News: “I think voters need a time for reflective, considered answers and follow-ups for genuine debates between the candidates for the top job. It’s a very good idea and it’s very different from what we get at PMQs.”

Tom Baldwin, who as Labour’s chief spin doctor helped Ed Miliband prepare for the 2015 debates, said an independent commission would remove “political gamesmanship” from TV debates.

“This is a fragile time for our democracy when people crave proper information before casting their votes,” he said.

“They deserve the chance to see political leaders unmediated, uncut and unspun.

“Debates can play a big part in that.

“We know there is widespread distrust of many politicians and the way they have behaved before recent election campaigns, when some of them have ducked and dived to avoid debating their opponents in public.”

For the Scottish National Party, media spokesperson Hannah Bardell MP welcomed the Sky News campaign and said: “The SNP has always supported and participated in Leaders’ TV debates, and it is time other parties caught up.

“The SNP is prepared to support an independent commission in principle, subject to agreement on fair representation for all parties in such debates.

“It would be completely unacceptable and undemocratic for Westminster parties and broadcasters to attempt to stitch up and shut out the SNP from TV debates – as happened in the past.”

Former Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas, who took part in TV debates in 2015 and 2017, tweeted: “Leaders’ debates should not be based on backroom deals between politicians and broadcasters.

“But an independent leaders’ debate commission should be just one element of a wholesale reform of our democracy to make it fit for the 21st century.”

From the business world, retailer and former Dragon’s Den star Theo Paphitis, who owns the Ryman and Robert Dyas high street stores, tweeted: “The voting public deserves to hear from the politicians that could be their future PM.

“The politicians should be accountable and challenged on their policies…more so now than ever! #MakeDebatesHappen

Last year, when Mrs May refused to debate with Mr Corbyn or other party leaders, her place was taken in the BBC debate in Cambridge by the then home secretary Amber Rudd, who is also backing the Sky News campaign.

“I think the public do expect it and I think they’re entitled to it,” she says. “I think an independent commission is the only way to go.”

Also backing the campaign is Sir Nick Clegg, former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister, who said in an article for Sky News: “These debates should be an immovable part of a general election in this country and a key component of our democratic process.

“They should not be in the gift of whichever political party is in power, or whichever politician is ahead in the polls.”

Announcing the launch of the campaign, John Ryley, head of Sky News, said: “This is all about doing what’s best for the voting public.

“Sky News, along with the other broadcasters, changed the political landscape in this country by creating the first leaders’ debates eight years ago.

“Sadly, it stands as an exception rather than the watershed it should have been.

“Political manoeuvring and failings by the broadcasters has allowed that momentum to be lost.

“Sky News believes an independent commission should set the terms for debates in future, to inform and engage the voting public with a head-to-head debate between the two political leaders battling it out for Number 10.”