Right now the hot topic in British politics is whether the Prime Minister, David Cameron, should take part in a TV debate with the leader of the Opposition, Ed Milliband.
Cameron wants a debate before the campaign starts but with all six political parties involved.
Ed Milliband wants several debates during the campaign including a head to head debate with Cameron. The other political parties want this too.
Frankly, none of them are telling the full truth here.
Let’s be entirely clear – none of the politicians are arguing this because of a love of democracy. None of them have the best interests of the country in mind. This is not about what is right or wrong.
This is about gaining an advantage at the polls. Nothing more, nothing less.
The polling experts know that head to head debates tend to favour the Opposition party. They can criticise the Government for what it has done, saying that they would do things differently. The Opposition can focus on anything that hasn’t gone well.
Meanwhile it is harder for the Prime Minister to attack the Opposition leader. By definition, the Opposition’s manifesto policies have not been put into effect yet. It’s not so easy to point to policies that have not worked.
Head to head debates also tend to equalise the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition. They are pitched at the same level with equal treatment and equal status. Head to head debates make Prime Ministers seem a little smaller and Opposition leaders a little taller.
It doesn’t matter which political party is in power. It is the same in any democratic country. Head to head debates are better for the Opposition than for the Government.
But none of our politicians are saying that. They are trying to accuse each other of cowardice or of the broadcasters overstepping the mark or of democratic rights and freedoms – all sorts of nonsense.
What they seem to have forgotten is that point of the election is to choose which political party should lead our country. It should not be about which party is the best at playing games.
Because that is all this debate is about – it’s a silly game. Manoeuvring. Point scoring.
In a sense I can’t blame the politicians. If they didn’t play these games then the other side will. And who would want to lose a very close general election because of something as simple as a television debate?
The classic example of a television debate was the first of three debates in 1960 between Nixon and Kennedy. Radio listeners thought that Nixon had come out on top, but the television viewers were more impressed with JFK. He looked young, fit and healthy where Nixon looked pale and old. Part of the reason was that Kennedy had used the television makeup people to help make him look good, but Nixon had refused to use the make-up.
Many commentators think that the debate made all the difference to the campaign. To think that one of the most powerful men on the planet was chosen because of a slap of max factor face powder! If I wrote something as ludicrous as that in a comedy, you would think I was taking the urine.
Cameron, Milliband and the rest all know this. The theory of democracy is that we choose the person or party who can best govern the country. The reality is that we choose someone who looks good on television.
You could blame the politicians for being manipulative. Or the public for being gullible. Either way, I have the awful feeling that democracy is broken, but we don’t have anything better to replace it with.