The Debate Debate

British politics has gone all meta in the last week, as a big debate has erupted out of the preparations and plans for the proposed Leaders’ Debates before this year’s General Election. The politicians vying for our votes in May can’t agree amongst themselves on what format should be used and who should be invited to the televised showdowns, where the politicians will essentially be disagreeing with each other once more. And then they wonder why there is dissatisfaction and disinterest in politics?

Debates are a fantastic democratic platform for the different parties and their respective leaders to be pitted against one another and for them to justify their parties’ performances and policies in front of the masses. For those who aren’t keeping tabs on the manifestos and revelations of an election campaign the debates should be a good way of informing yourself about just what these parties are standing for and whether or not they are worthy of your cross on the ballot paper. But the way in which these forthcoming debates are being planned and constructed is far from democratic and far from helpful in giving the voting public the chance to make an informed choice at the election.

Back in October, the major UK broadcasters (BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4) launched their proposals for the forthcoming election debates. With the rise of UKIP since 2010, they changed their rules on participation in the debates to provide what they felt was a more appropriate schedule of debates, compared with the three three-person contests last time. Here are the exact proposals for this year as they were:

  • One head-to-head debate between the two leaders who could become Prime Minister – Conservative and Labour. This debate will be co-produced by Sky News and Channel 4 and chaired by Jeremy Paxman. Kay Burley will introduce the programme and present the post-debate analysis. The whole programme will be carried live on Sky and Channel 4 and their digital platforms, as well as having a major presence across social media.
  • One debate between the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders. This debate will be produced by the BBC and presented by David Dimbleby. It will be broadcast on BBC One with extensive live coverage on other BBC TV and Radio networks and online.
  • One debate between the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and UKIP leaders. This debate will be produced and broadcast by ITV. The ITV debate, chaired by Julie Etchingham, will air on ITV’s main channel and online

While credit should probably be due for trying to attempt a more varied and alternative range of debates this time around, the vocal criticisms of the debates is that they exclude both the Green party, which are polling at a similar level to the Lib Dems and have been for months, and the SNP, a party which by many predictions will be the 3rd largest party in the House of Commons after the election and the kingmaker presumptive should there be another hung parliament, as is also expected.

The broadcasters’ “cover” for doing so came last week from OFCOM (the communication ombudsman) which justified the broadcasters’ position on the Greens and SNP by not classifying them as major parties throughout the UK. While the SNP are rated as a major party in Scotland, the Green parties are not classified as such anywhere. The issue that I, and many others, have with OFCOM’s decision is that the major party status is self-perpetuating and does not take in to account the way in which the last five years have seen British politics change immeasurably. Although first-past-the-post and the effects of their support being clustered and concentrated in different constituencies will help the Lib Dems, there is no evidence to suggest they will perform significantly better than the Greens in terms of national vote share in 2015 – unless the Greens are not able to get their message across in the same way that the Lib Dems are being afforded public broadcasting to do so, of course. I accept that the SNP are not a major party across the UK; but if, as current polls suggest, they are to end up as the third largest party in the House of Commons then they stand a very high chance of being part of a coalition government. This raises two points: first, like the Greens, a lack of public exposure will hurt the SNP vote in the election and would do an injustice to their democratic right to serve the people of Scotland (which they are doing as the Government here at the moment) and secondly, should the SNP get into Government without having the opportunity to broadcast their platform to those across the UK, surely that is undemocratic as well?

The public’s opinion on the debates is that they should happen, and all of the above parties should be included. A YouGov survey at the end of last week found that 70% of respondents agreed that the debates should take place. Here are the percentages of respondents that agreed that the following leaders should be allowed to take part:

  • David Cameron, Conservative: 84%
  • Ed Miliband, Labour: 84%
  • Nick Clegg, Lib Dems: 78%
  • Natalie Bennett, Greens: 62%
  • Nicola Sturgeon, SNP: 53%

The public’s majority view is that ALL parties that currently have a Westminster party seat should be allowed to participate in the Leaders’ Debates for the General Election. This is clear and unequivocal proof that the British public’s democratic wishes are being ignored by its’ public broadcasters and its’ broadcasting ombudsman. Very democratic, isn’t it?

Of course the idea of debates in Britain was only properly instigated in the last election campaign back in 2010. While opposition leaders had clamoured for head-to-head debates against the Prime Minister ever since Tony Blair challenged the Tory dynasty and won, it was only when Gordon Brown succumbed to media pressure six months before the last election that the drama and intense politicking of debates were brought to our shores. America has had them in their Presidential races since the 70s, and they have become critical focal points in the campaigns – with several elections being won and lost on candidates’ debate performances. 2010’s General Election debates also had an impact on the way in which the election unfolded here too. Nick Clegg was the star of the shows, coming across so well to voters that he was judged to have won the first two out of the three clashes by pollsters. This brought a surge in support for the Lib Dems; a party traditionally not afforded as much coverage as the two heavyweights of Labour and the Tories, so much so that they jumped into second place in the opinion polls for a short while. Although in the end the Lib Dems made a net loss of seats in the election, their overall vote share across the country rose by 1% – placing them only six percentage points behind Labour. This also set them up as kingmakers in what was the first hung parliament in the UK since 1974. Had proportional representation been in effect rather than first-past-the-post, the effects could have been even more severe. The 2010 election debates definitely influenced the outcome of what was an extraordinary election, by giving a fairer chance to the third party to broadcast their platform across the country.

With the extremely volatile and uncharted multi-party world of British politics, it’s a shame that the debates are not being heralded by the media as a chance to showcase what is an entirely new age of democracy for the country. Conspiracies about the media keeping the status quo of the three major parties are dime a dozen, and although the benefit of the doubt has to go to the broadcasters that they are trying to produce fair and democratic contests it’s increasingly difficult to do so when their criteria for excluding some parties is so arbitrary. In other countries across the world, broadcasters have no problem incorporating five or more leaders into their election debates. We should be no different here in the UK.

The British public have shown in local, regional and European elections and in an independence referendum here in Scotland that the traditional political system of this country is not working for them. The media is doing them a disservice by not recognising this fact and by planning to influence what should be a democratic and independent process where the public gets to see the range of political choices available to them. After this election whoever ends up on the Government benches in the Commons should ensure that the public’s democratic right to proper debates is maintained and an independent election debates committee should be established to govern over the arrangements for the next round in 2020 (or earlier if there are any national referenda called).

To add to the complexity of the arguments made above, David Cameron has announced that he will not take part in any debates that exclude the Green party. It’s a great piece of politics from him and his team, as while on the face of things he is defending the democratic principles of the debate he is also trying to duck out of it to avoid what the debates set out to do: give the opposition parties to score points by criticising the defending Government, something which Cameron is worried that he is especially at risk of from Nigel Farage. Only 20% of respondents in a YouGov poll believed the Prime Minister wanted to take part in the debates. In response Miliband, Clegg and Farage have written to the Prime Minister and said that should he not attend then the debates will take place with an “empty podium”, which will symbolise the Prime Minister’s failure to appear.

The debate debate will continue, but it’s almost certain that there will be some form of contest before the elections in May. All parties, apart from perhaps the Tories, can use the debates to better promote themselves and show that they are the alternative to the Government we have just now. OFCOM have opened up their “major parties” ruling for consultation, and if there is enough of a response to it then there will need to be a reconsideration of the broadcasters’ position. While the outlook for the Election debates is bleak at the moment, it’s in the parties’ and the public’s interest to come together to organise them. At least in that they have some common ground.

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