Ofcom today issued its consultation on who should be allowed to participate in the Leaders debates on TV in the run up to the General Election and, as “major parties” be allowed two party election broadcasts on TV and radio in advance of the election.
Their suggestion is that the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats be allowed to participate as before, UKIP as a party that has recently won two by-elections and has the majority of European Parliament seats, it also has that status.
The Prime Minister has joined those who oppose Ofcom’s proposals, saying he would not want to be part of the debates if the Green Party were to be excluded. He is being accused of being chicken about the debates, but he makes a case of fairness as to why they should be included.
I’m not a member of any political party. I am not really a fan of Leaders’ debates – but that particular genie is already out of the bottle.
If the debates want to make it all about who comes over best on TV (“I agree with Nick!”) then it is only right and proper that the leaders of the parties running with a reasonable chance of obtaining seats in parliament are allowed to put their messages across.
1) Defining Major Parties
The Green Party, which had an MP at the last election rather than just obtained by by-elections, won three European Parliament seats and also has control of a local council (Brighton and Hove), according to recent polling has a younger, more female and better educated demographic – up to 18% of potential voters aged 18-24 (and 10% of 25-39 year olds) said they would vote Green according to data from YouGov.
The latest polling puts the Greens 2% ahead of the Lib Dems who are defined as a major party.
According to the House of Commons Library, the SNP (92,000) has a larger membership than the Lib Dems (44,000), UKIP (39,000) and the Greens (29,000). That means in terms of people willing to pay to belong, the SNP is closer to the Conservatives (134,000) and even the Labour Party (190,000) than the small parties, despite only putting forward candidates in one part of the UK!
Now that’s a bit confusing…
2) Content matters
We are about to go into the most uncertain election in decades.
While people in the media and beyond have criticised the Coalition, and the Lib Dems have lost support for “propping up an unpopular Conservative minority in a government no one voted for” (as a friend put it to me recently) rather than standing as a principled but powerless opposition party, it seems most likely that there will be another coalition, possibly with more than two parties in it after the next election.
That means that content matters.
We actually need to know what the parties stand for because – as was the case last time – what the next government actually agrees to do may well be an amalgam of policies from the manifestos of the parties that form the coalition, the coalition agreement taking the place of the manifesto as an agreed statement of government.
So arguably, while not national parties in the sense of standing in constituencies across the UK, the nationalist parties views and policies might conceivably be part of the government’s statement of government and can’t just be ignored as only relevant to a part of the UK population smaller than the number of people resident in London.
And it would be useful to know about the leaders and what really matters to them if they get into power.
Here’s an example… When the Lib Dems were negotiating the coalition agreement, Nick Clegg gambled that securing constitutional change – with a referendum on the voting system and reform of the House of Lords plus taking on the until-then pretty much ceremonial role of Deputy Prime Minister – was enough to change the face of British politics that other key policies (such as tuition fees) that could not be agreed between the parties could be sacrificed. The Lib Dems also secured one of the two Cabinet posts from HM Treasury and a couple of important departments aligned with their world view, but on a fifth of the votes and a fifth of the government posts, they could only really expect to secure in the coalition agreement a fifth of the policies. The gamble didn’t pay off – the referendum didn’t offer voters the STV voting system but AV, the alternative vote system, which can produce results as far from the actual votes cast as the current First Past the Post system, but without being as simple to understand. Lords reform vanished off the public’s radar, mired in the general mistrust of all politicians, elected or appointed.
Could anyone have guessed this from the chummy “I agree with Nick”s of the TV leaders’ debate? Probably not – I don’t recall coming away from watching the three debates feeling that, if in a coalition, the Lib Dems would put all their eggs in the constitutional change basket. But those were the first real TV debates, and the leaders were not pushed on that issue. I hope that they might be this time.
Given the dev max that was effectively proposed as an alternative to Scottish independence, what could an SNP coalition partner ask for? What about the Northern Irish parties? UKIP? The Greens? As the 2010 election showed, we need to hear it because the commonalities could put one group of parties in power.
3) Context setting
Both of the issues above lead to a realisation.Debate will be very different if the Greens are included.
Think about it this way.
Ten years ago, UKIP was a fringe party of what David Cameron felt free to call “fruitcakes and loons”. With persistence and help from the rightwing press, their key themes of immigration and the EU have become mainstream issues on which all the parties now have to have views. Farage was portrayed as a character, and – like Boris Johnson – being a bit of a joker, a bloke, allowed his statements to be made without being picked apart properly by opponents. Now securing more votes is leading to greater scrutiny.
Farage is right about one thing: the professionalisation of Westminster politics means that there has been more focus on getting the soundbites out than on actual discussion of what the country we want to be looks like, acts like in the world and how we treat each other and our planet.
Today the Greens are smaller than UKIP. But small parties grow, as UKIP shows. The demographic that votes UKIP (older, male, less well educated) is almost exactly the inverse of those that intend to vote Green. Younger voters will statistically be voters for longer… so the political current should be with the younger group, if they are persuaded to vote at all.
If the Greens are not represented, the debate will be filled with Farage making statements that fit his world view. As was shown by the Clegg-Farage EU debates- no matter how sensible (and accurate) the points put against him, he will set the agenda, he will dominate the coverage, he will be the story.
The context of the debate will be ideas of the right, and a distortion of all the possible thoughts out there about what is important for the country. Having the left-of-centre Greens in the debate will open up wider issues: not just the environment but the economy, human rights, and allow for better quality of discussion.
4) Let’s hear it from the boys???
If Ofcom’s proposals stayed unchanged (and with the Prime Minister’s intervention that now seems unlikely), the audience will yet again be presented with a range of middle/ upper middle class, white, middle-aged men. They may even all be millionaires (even if it were only property-price paper millionaire status).
My heart sinks. If politics is seen to be a rich, white man’s game, then how do we encourage younger, more diverse groups of people who are entitled to vote that they should exercise their right to do so? Much as we wish it wouldn’t, the appearance of things matters.
Just hearing if from the boys is a really big deal.
Women lead the Greens (Natalie Bennett), the SNP (Nicola Sturgeon), Plaid Cymru (Leanne Wood), but you wouldn’t know it if you just saw the leaders of the (apparently) big four.
How can we trust that issues that predominantly affect women are understood if there are few women, and even fewer mothers, involved in politics and – when they are – they are excluded from being publicly visible in key debates?
And that’s only for the representation of 50% of the population. What about race, disability, those of us that aren’t millionaires?
For this reason, if no other, Natalie Bennett ought to be featured.
5) But what is the purpose of the Leaders’ Debates?
To hear what a potential Prime Minister might say? Then there would be almost no point in either the Lib Dems or UKIP being represented either.
To be a stage managed, presentation of part of the political discussion in terms that make it simple to write headlines? Is that really what our broadcasters are for?
So there would seem to be a case for the Greens to be involved in the debates. Less so the nationalist parties, as none of the leaders are seeking to become UK Prime Minister. It would be more likely that Clegg, not Sturgeon, would be the UK Birgitte Nyborg…
Now to write to Ofcom…
You might be thinking “so what” or “oh dear”, or even “whatev’s”. You might genuinely think none of this matters.
There was a fascinating section in Charlie Brooker’s 2014 Wipe review of the year – a brilliant personal view from Adam Curtis on why “oh dear” is not a good response for democracy.