The main London based TV broadcasters have recently published their joint proposals for a series of leaders’ debates during the 2015 general election campaign. For details see here. In doing so they have once again demonstrated just how London centred they remain. The Greens have one MP, elected in 2010, and a respectable voting record in European elections, yet remain almost invisible to the mainstream media. Until last week UKIP had no MP at Westminster, and their current one is a defector from the Tory party. Yet UKIP and Nigel Farage in particular have become the darlings of the London media, including the broadcasters. Presumably because their reactionary anti immigrant, anti EU message suits the media barons more than the progressive polices of the Greens. The proposals for TV debates also demonstrate just how out of touch the broadcasters are with what is happening across the UK. For their focus is not reflective in any way with what is happening in many parts of England, never mind Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Yet we are supposed to be a United Kingdom. This is a funny way of showing how we are all better together. If we are to have TV debates featuring the leaders of political parties, and it looks like we will, there needs to be a sound basis for deciding who gets to appear in these debates. We should most definitely not leave this key decision to the broadcasters alone.
A Prime Ministerial debate?
There is some, though a very limited, rational for holding a debate among the candidates who could become Prime Minister, without relying on the support of other parties. Though of course this would only involve David Cameron and Ed Milliband. Everyone recognises that only Labour or the Tories can win an outright majority of seats on their own. However this is an increasingly unlikely outcome. It did not happen in 2010 and just about all polls indicate the most likely outcome in May 2015 is another “hung” parliament, with no overall majority for either party. So though in theory this option has some basis to it, the reality is that most people would rightly reject it. The UK is sufficiently beyond two party politics for broadcasters to impose a return to those bygone days on the rest of us.
Debates involving the leaders of all political parties?
This is the one option that has so far never been considered by our broadcasters. No doubt difficult to organise and to work out a format that allows all the participants to respond to questions. Yet this is the only option that does justice to all parties and most important of all, the only option which serves the purpose of informing the electorate, which should be the key, indeed sole purpose of any debate.
The justification for involving all parties is that any party, however small, may have an important, possibly decisive, role to play in who does become Prime Minister. As the most likely outcome of the May 2015 election is that no party has an overall majority of MPs, then all kinds of coalitions, formal or informal may become possible. To take just one example, that of Plaid Cymru. Though there is no way that Plaid Cymru can become the party of government at Westminster, the votes of their MPs could in some circumstances be decisive in building a stable coalition or in supporting a minority government. It is therefore important that the voters in the rest of the country know not just what Plaid Cymru stand for, but how the other parties, in particular Labour and the Tories, would respond to any overtures from Plaid. This can only be done through some kind of open and public engagement among the parties.
Spare a thought for the broadcasters
There is it seems to me no simple way to accommodate needs and demands of all the various interested parties, from the broadcasters themselves, the political parties to the most important of all, the poor bloody voter. The reason for this is quite simple – the increasing fragmentation of politics in the UK. This can be seen firstly in the slow, but seemingly irreversible decline of both Labour and the Tory party. In counter part to this decline there is the rise of national parties in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Combined, these trends may mean there is no longer in any UK wide politics in any meaningful sense. In England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland the key issues are often different and the political parties are often different. Just glad I am not a broadcaster, though they need to come up with something much much better than their current proposals.