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Photo collage of the seven representatives taking part in the debate
L-R: Daisy Cooper (Liberal Democrats), Stephen Flynn (SNP), Rhun ap Iorwerth (Plaid Cymru), Penny Mordaunt (Conservatives), Angela Rayner (Labour), Nigel Farage (Reform UK) and Carla Denyer (Green Party). Getty/EPA-EFE/Alamy

Election 2024: why it’s still worth watching the multi-party debate

The fallout from the first general election debate has left viewers and voters with a bad taste in their mouths. The Conservatives’ disputed claim about Labour’s tax plans shows precisely the problems of adversarial debate formats: they favour soundbites, attack politics and rhetorical tactics that can be misleading.

Much of the debate involved Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer shouting over one another (and moderator Julie Etchingham shouting over both). This may explain why YouGov’s snap opinion poll found 62% of viewers found the debate “frustrating” to watch.

Read more: Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer's first election debate: the facts behind the claims

But that doesn’t mean tonight’s multi-party showdown isn’t worth watching – especially if you’re still trying to decide how to vote. Representatives from seven parties: Conservatives (Penny Mordaunt), Labour (Angela Rayner), SNP (Stephen Flynn), Liberal Democrats (Daisy Cooper), Green Party (Carla Denyer), Reform Party (Nigel Farage) and Plaid Cymru (Rhun ap Iorwerth) will discuss the issues on the BBC.

According to polling expert John Curtice’s analysis: “People who voted Tory in 2019 are three times more likely than Labour voters to be undecided.” There is a real opportunity in this election for the smaller parties, and the multi-party debate puts that to the test.

The main benefit of election debates for smaller parties is the equal airtime afforded to all participants. In general broadcast coverage, Ofcom’s impartiality rules say that parties “must be given due weight … based on their past and current electoral support”.

But with more voices competing for time, we’re also likely to continue to see short, soundbite-driven answers dominate in between frequent interruptions.

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What will we learn from a multi-party debate?

A two-header can exacerbate media framing of politics as a binary choice. Voters want to feel like there is meaningful choice between the parties, and have expressed frustration at candidates fighting over the middle ground.

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey’s attempts to gain coverage for his party through media stunts such as falling off a paddle board have been portrayed as “clowning around”. The debate may offer a more sober opportunity for the party to get its policy agenda across to voters.

Research by the Electoral Reform Society in 2017 found that those who perceive politicians as remote and detached from ordinary people’s experiences are disproportionately likely to live in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They are also likely to support small parties, including the SNP and Plaid Cymru.

One thing voters report wanting from debates is to get a sense that politicians understand their lives and needs. However, explicit attempts to capitalise on that could backfire. Ipsos MORI found that last time around, a quarter of debate viewers reported most disliking sections “when the politicians were talking about their own character and experiences”.

Read more: Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer's election debate: an audience asking for a way out of hopelessness and getting nothing in response

The multi-party debates could also engage a younger audience. Polling suggests 18- to 24-year-olds are slightly more likely to vote Liberal Democrat than other age groups, and significantly more likely to vote Green than those over 50 (though a majority intend to vote Labour). And according to YouGov, the group most likely to favour the inclusion of leaders of the smaller parties in the debates is 18- to 24-year-olds (89% compared with the average of 81%).

Research shows this cohort is also likely to benefit from watching debates. The late, great political communications scholar Jay Blumler found in audience responses to the 2010 debates that young people were more likely to want to watch the debates to make up their minds how to vote. They were also most likely to report having learned something from them.

But Blumler also observed they were strikingly more likely to watch “for ammunition in arguments with others”. He interpreted this as perhaps linked to their greater use of the internet and potentially “a new politics of confrontation”. There is some evidence that social media is associated with political polarisation.

However, the cognitive biases that make people likely to accept claims that support their existing views (and find reasons to doubt those that challenge them) are common among the politically engaged and informed of all ages.

Do we need a different debate format?

After the 2010 debates, more than a third of viewers said it was a good ideas to have televised debates in future elections – but “done differently”. It is disappointing that broadcasters have not moved much beyond the tried-and-tested formats.

Further debate programmes to come, such as the BBC’s Question Time special and Sky News’s leader interviews, could allow for fuller explanations to be given, and more substantive responses without interruptions. Participants and moderators should bear in mind that voters want to be “respected as rational and independent decision-makers” and be able to assess the truth of claims made.

To exploit a combative debate for electoral gain undermines trust in formal politics. It can only fuel the most common reason for not tuning in: that you can’t trust what politicians say on television.

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