Gordon Brown has accepted the offer of TV debates with David CameronI so I got a slot – all of two minutes – on The Steven Nolan Show this morning, to talk about the worth of such an approach here. Nolan took a pretty ho-ho approach to the topic but it actually merits more thought and attention than two minutes.

There’s a crying need to have greater public involvement in politics between elections, so people get the message that public duty is more than a matter of ticking a ballot paper once every few years. TV debates could be a way to energize public interest in issues AND in the quality of leadership available. We could make balanced judgements about the passion, clarity and openness to ideas of our leaders.

The danger is that such debates become beauty contests. That’s what lost Richard Nixon the 1960 presidential election – he looked shifty-eyed and he had a line of sweat along his top lip that people didn’t like. Certainly Tony Benn has spent a political lifetime warning us against putting personality before politics. The irony is, when he came here to speak at the Waterfront Hall, the place was packed not because of the issues involved so much as the star quality of the speaker – Benn’s wit, his logic, his honesty. The same happend with George Galloway – he packed out Mandela Hall, not just because he was anti- the Iraq invasion, but because he articulated that issue in feisty, pugnacious language.

So it’s actually policy AND personality we look for. Maybe we need to be educated to look for strength of character and worthwhile political vision. Before you yell “Impossible!”, remember how public thinking on smoking, drink driving, homophobia and racism has been turned around over the past two or three decades. If we could do that, shouldn’t it be possible to wean us from the poisonous breast of demagogues and bigots?

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