Hitting the ground running: The first 100 days
Hitting the ground running: The first 100 days

Saving face: The role of television debates in an election campaign

Words by:
June 5, 2024

Last night, Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer faced each other in the first head-to-head debate of the election campaign. In a lively discussion, the leaders fought over taxation, public services and immigration in a bid to win over the public.  

As seen throughout the campaign, Starmer reiterated the need for ‘change’, positioning himself as an advocate for practical solutions and a brighter future. In contrast, Sunak stressed his ‘clear plan’ was working, portraying himself as a steady hand amidst uncertainty. 

Sunak’s strategy was evidently to come out on the attack, aiming to unsettle Starmer and reinforce doubts about Labour’s economic competence. Starmer, while initially shaky, gained confidence when addressing audience questions directly.  

Whilst Sunak’s performance slightly tipped YouGov’s snap poll (with 51% of favourable opinion), the same poll suggested Starmer came across as more likeable, in touch and trustworthy. On balance, neither leader ‘won’ the first debate.  

With just over four weeks to go until election day and the latest polls suggesting Labour is on course for a record win, we explore the role of television debates in an election campaign and whether they can ever turn the tide.  

Memorable shows – and no shows    

While television debates have been a firm fixture of US campaigns for decades, the UK only held its first debate in 2010.

The debate between then-party leaders Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg was watched by nearly 10 million viewers and triggered what became known as ‘Cleggmania’ – with support for the Liberal Democrats increasing by 14% the following day. Although interestingly, come election day Liberal Democrat support had fallen back down to pre-debate levels and they finished the election with fewer parliamentary seats.  

Following concerns around political bias, the set-up was overhauled during the 2015 election to accommodate seven party leaders, including Nicola Sturgeon and Nigel Farage. The messy format limited airtime for political leaders, and no conclusive ‘winner’ emerged from any of the debates.  

While broadcasters accommodated then Prime Minister Theresa May’s refusal to take part in television debates in 2017, citing lack of time due to the snap election, producers at Channel 4 were less sympathetic with Boris Johnson’s refusal to take part in a debate on climate change in 2019 – famously replacing him with a block of melting ice.  

History shows us that while television debates can shift the dial in the campaign, they are fraught with pitfalls. Sunak and Starmer may have escaped unscathed so far, but with seven-way debates coming down the track including with newly appointed Reform UK leader Nigel Farage – that could soon change.

The knight that won’t fight  

The noise and optics around televised debates can be just as important as the events themselves.  

In 2019, former SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon accused Boris Johnson of being a ‘scaredy cat’ because he refused to debate her. This became a common theme of Boris Johnson’s campaign, repeatedly refusing a sit-down interview with BBC’s Andrew Neil despite his opponents taking part in the grilling.  

Fast forward to 2024, and the Tories are mirroring this strategy with briefings around ‘Sir Fear Starmer’ and ‘the knight that won’t fight’, a tactic they will likely double down on given Starmer was clearly unsettled by Sunak’s approach last night. Given the potential pitfalls around televised debates and their strong lead in the polls, it is clear the Labour Party have more to lose in head-to-heads and Starmer’s team will be choosing media opportunities carefully.   

That Boris Johnson secured the biggest Tory majority since the 1980s demonstrates the effectiveness of his media strategy and that keeping quiet when you are winning is sometimes an effective strategy.  

Debating in a digital age  

The way the public consume news has changed significantly since the first televised debates in 2010, with only 4.8 million viewers watching last night’s debate.   

However, live commentary on social media channels, the ability to clip blunders, and the rise of political memes can create a longevity to television debates that wasn’t as impactful in 2010.  

#ITVDebate continues to trend on X this morning, with over 324k tweets so far, and politicians and media alike know that in a 60-minute debate, a five second clip can sometimes be the only thing an audience remembers and sometimes the only thing they see.  

This has changed the way leaders debate, moving to a focus on soundbites – such as Sunak’s repetition of a supposed £2,000 tax hike under Labour – rather than substance. While initial social media reaction suggests the public is wise to this, political teams will point to people talking about their strategies as successful cut through.  

Time to wrap up   

On paper, television debates are an opportunity for political leaders to directly engage with the UK public, answering questions from the audience and succinctly pitching their policies.  

In reality, the rise of social media and the fall in broadcast viewers means the surround sound to debates is often more important than the debate itself.  

Over the next few weeks, political strategists will set up gruelling role-play exercises to prepare politicians for upcoming debates, emphasising the importance of message delivery and creating the right sound bite.  

Only time will tell if it makes any difference.  

Follow us on LinkedIn for more insight and analysis on the general election campaign or contact to see how we can help achieve media cut through at this time.  

Upcoming debates and interviews  

WA Comms will provide regular insight and analysis during the televised debates, and we will assess whether they have indeed helped shift the dial after the last head-to-head debate on 26 June.  Here is a list of debates and set-pieces announced so far:  

  • Tuesday 4 June First head-to-head debate between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer (ITV, 9pm)  
  • Thursday 6 June – Broadcast interview with Sir Ed Davey (ITV, 8:30pm)  
  • Friday 7 June, London – Debate between leading figures from the seven biggest political parties (BBC, 7.30pm)  
  • Wednesday 12 June – Q&A with Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer (Sky, tbc)  
  • Wednesday 12 June – Broadcast interview with Rishi Sunak (ITV, 7pm)  
  • Thursday 13 June – Debate between senior representatives from seven biggest political parties (ITV, 8:30pm)  
  • Thursday 20 June – Question Time Leaders’ Special with leaders of the four biggest political parties (BBC, 8pm) 
  • Wednesday 26 June – Final head-to-head debate between Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer (BBC, 9pm)  
  • Thursday 27 June – Broadcast interview with Sir Keir Starmer (ITV, 8:30pm)  
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