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We deserve better than this dismal political debate

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The writer, former press secretary to Tony Blair, will be presenting C4 election coverage on July 4. His next two books attempt to explain politics to children

When I was a trainee journalist at the Daily Mirror, I was taught to try to get the first paragraph down to fewer than 30 words — 20 even better. It was a very good discipline but often left me intensely frustrated. Thirty words could rarely tell a whole story, so for the Financial Times I am taking a little longer to get to the point . . . which is that by the time this paragraph has ended I will have written as many words as can be said in 45 seconds, assuming a normal speaking pace.

What does it say about our media and our politics that in the first election debate, 45 seconds was all the time ITV gave our two prime ministerial candidates to answer detailed questions on significant issues? To deal with the economy, foreign policy, health, education, what to do to help a woman struggling to feed her family or a young man who sees a bleak future for his generation. Seriously, what right do the media have to complain about politicians talking in soundbites if that is all they are given the time for?

Seriously, indeed, it is a lack of seriousness that bedevils our politics. Boris Johnson and Liz Truss becoming prime minister, with catastrophic effect, were the ultimate consequences. Johnson who built his entire media and political career, in plain sight, on a lack of seriousness; Truss whose rise to the top was born of her party’s lack of seriousness about itself and its role in the country’s governance.

Back in 1997, though we negotiated with John Major’s team after the then prime minister called for TV debates, I don’t think either he or Tony Blair were terribly distressed when the talks fell through. “Great for the media, terrible for the debate,” was how, in different ways, both have described TV face-offs to me since.

Rishi Sunak said the right words on taking office, promising “professionalism, integrity and accountability”, yet has consistently revealed Johnsonian tendencies in his relationship with all three. The tax row that he provoked on the back of the ITV debate, for all that his supporters pretend it was clever politics on a par with the Brexit red bus and the NHS lie, was an accident waiting to happen to a man not unused to making questionable claims about his government’s record.

This furore also underlines that this, like many TV shows covering politics, was not about the future of the country at all; it was a cross between a game show and BBC Question Time. In it, Labour leader Keir Starmer sought to land one big point — that the Tories have been in power for 14 years and left the country in a worse state — and Sunak wanted to land one big claim, that Labour would raise taxes by £2,000 for every working family.

Treasury permanent secretary James Bowler did our political health a good turn in making clear that the Tory claim that the Treasury had authored the £2,000 analysis was simply not true.

Is it too much to hope that the rest of the debates might be designed with an understanding that a general election is a momentous time in the nation’s life? They could be a significant contribution to helping the public understand the issues. That requires both the broadcasters and the parties, too, to see that if people are taken seriously, they will react seriously — even in the age of social media, most of us have an attention span long enough to sustain hearing the same voice for a few minutes.

It also requires politicians to understand that they put people off by talking over each other, or saying things that aren’t true. Silencing the microphone of the person not speaking until they are called on by the moderator, might help.

It is said that we get the politicians we deserve. Maybe. Right now, however, neither the politicians nor the public are getting the debate we deserve. We are entitled to demand far better from politics and media alike.

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