"The responsibility of asking the killer question, one that cannot be easily avoided and forces each speaker to compare the positions of their opponents and explain why their own stands out as the best, lies with the audience."
After two election debates featuring the leaders of the largest parties across the country, the public will get one last chance to grill them directly on Thursday 30th April - although there will be no debate, with each leader appearing individually to face the audience on a special edition of Question Time.
Much, if not most, of the commentary and advice dispensed over the course of this month has been aimed at the speakers from how to appear likeable to rehearsing witty put-downs. However, as we go in to the last stretch of the election campaign, this post is a piece of advice to the audience on the unanswered questions that still need to be asked.
The power of a good question
Debating London co-founder, Jason Maude, expressed his concern before the second debate that the sheer number of speakers on the panel risked turning what should be a debate into a five way press conference. This is because the purpose of a debate is not simply to provide multiple speakers with a soapbox for expressing their own positions. Rather, it is to facilitate a cross examination of each speaker so that the audience can compare their positions and decide who they agree with most.
It is natural for the speakers in any debate to try and evade that scrutiny. A common way of doing this is simply to answer a different question. However, the brave debater will openly challenge the premise of a question if they disagree with it, such as Natalie Bennett did when delivering an answer on immigration during the second debate.
The responsibility of asking the killer question though, one that cannot be easily avoided and forces each speaker to compare the positions of their opponents and explain why their own stands out as the best, lies with the audience.
The media, and indeed the Prime Minister, are agreed on who has asked the best question of the election campaign so far: a ten year old girl named Reema from Salford. You can view the moment she left David Cameron stumped in the video below.
Questions answered in the second debate
The questions asked in the second televised debate (see below) bore a lot of similarities to those asked in the first, with the exception of the question on defence.
Is it fair to increase spending when young people will be left to pay the debt?
How will the parties tackle the lack of affordable housing?
Would the party leaders keep Trident and should defence spending be increased to 2% of GDP?
How do you plan to deal with the pressure put on public services by immigration?
What deal would you do in a hung parliament?
Below is a 'scrutiny chart' which shows the position of each party, as stated in their answer to the original question, along with the responses of the other parties to each other. The aim is to record just how much scrutiny the five leaders applied to each other as well as the arguments they used to defend their own positions.
What do you notice about the SNP, the Green Party, and Plaid Cymru in this chart?
The questions that still need to be asked
What you'll notice about the SNP (Nicola Sturgeon), the Greens, (Natalie Bennett), and Plaid Cymru (Leanne Wood) is that their positions barely came under any scrutiny whatsoever. It's no surprise, therefore, that Nicola Sturgeon in particular has enjoyed such a positive response from the voters during the debates because she has been virtually unchallenged throughout.
It should also be noted that in the Scotland, where the SNP have a track record in government to defend, she has fared much worse in the separate TV debates exclusively between Scottish party leaders.
There is a more important point that needs to be made here though. It is that the televised debates have been mis-characterised by the popular press as being a gladiatorial dual (or destruction derby in this case) where points are awarded for getting loud rounds of applause of 'slapping down' an opponent with a cutting insult. This is exactly the image, not at all helped by the weekly Punch and Judy shows at Prime Minister's Questions, that turns off so many voters at the mere mention of the term 'debate'.
A debate is a unique opportunity for the parties to bypass the press and lay their cards out for the public to see in the hope that at the end they will have a clearer idea of who to vote for and why. This can only happen if the leaders are forced by a savvy questioner into explaining how their policies would benefit the country in comparison with the available alternatives.
So, here is the list of questions that we, Debating London, would like to see asked in the special edition of Question Time featuring David Cameron, Ed Miliband, and Nick Clegg, on Thursday 30th April.
Questions for David Cameron
Why is it more important to have access to a GP seven days a week (as you have pledged) than to get a guaranteed appointment to see a GP within 48 hours (as Labour have pledged)?
Why is Natalie Bennett wrong to say the deficit is not a big threat as long as the government invests in infrastructure and public services? What would be the consequences of following her advice and who would they harm?
Why is it essential to have a referendum specifically on Britain's membership of the European Union, but not to have one on tackling the deficit or the changes you are proposing to the UK constitution?
Questions for Ed Miliband
Nicola Sturgeon says it is more important to invest in conventional armed forces than the renewal of Trident. Is it affordable to do both and if not, which would you prioritise and why?
UKIP argue that freedom of movement in the EU means we can never predict how many people will be in the country and the impact their number will have on jobs, the NHS, housing, and school places. How is it possible to solve this problem without restricting freedom of movement in the EU and would it be worth leaving the EU to achieve this?
The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives want to increase spending on the NHS by £8 billion, but you question the assumptions this figure is based on. What are these assumptions and why are they wrong?
Questions for Nick Clegg
UKIP say that migrant labour from the rest of the EU is driving down wages and putting pressure on public services. Are these examples of good or bad immigration?
When is it not a good idea to take the middle way between two opposing positions and why choose the centre ground between Labour and the Conservatives and not two actual polar opposites, such as UKIP and the Green Party?
You agree with Labour that the pace of spending cuts should be slowed, so why do you insist they commit to a fixed date for ending the deficit and could you support them in a hung parliament without one?
You can watch a live screening of the leaders Question Time special with Debating London at the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry from 7 pm on Thursday 30th April. Admission is free and you can book your place here.