As May’s General Election approaches, the issue of televised debates has once again made an appearance. Having previously endorsed the idea, David Cameron initially baulked at the prospect of debates involving UKIP, but not the Greens. However, with new proposals for a seven-way debate involving the Greens, as well as the SNP and Plaid Cymru, it looks like TV debates are back on the agenda.
So why has Cameron been so unwilling to take part in the debates? The simple answer is that for the incumbent, there is a lot to lose and not much to gain. An incumbent will be forced to defend their record in office, warts and all, while a challenger has no such millstone around their neck. In government, any leader will have had to make compromises and take unpopular decisions, while an outsider who has not held office can more easily stand on principal.
If he participates in the debates, Cameron will be open to attack from Farage who, knowing he will never get into power and have to deliver on them, can make outlandish promises and appeal directly to the public’s grievances without the need for serious policies. Moreover he will be constantly bombarded with reminders of his broken promises, something only Nick Clegg will see more of.
However refusing to participate smacks of cowardice, and the public will latch onto that. It is truly a Catch-22 situation, but Cameron needs to be brave. He cannot avoid participating, especially if the Greens are now invited. It is a damning indictment on the Tory Leader that he has essentially admitting that he has less public appeal than the deeply uncharismatic Ed Miliband.
So should the Greens even be involved at all; are they a relevant entity in the political machine? Well, if recent polling is anything to go by, then the answer is undeniably yes. Recent YouGov polls put them at 11%, ahead of the Liberal Democrats. Moreover the party has announced a major bump in membership, now boasting more members than UKIP. They may only have one MP, but the Greens are undoubtedly a party to be reckoned with.
The Greens have been called many things; ranging from Communists to the ‘UKIP of the Left’. Either way, they are now a serious force in British politics, who may well hold the balance of power in a hung parliament. n British politics, who may well hensure that the broadcasters cover the political diversity of the country – ranging from the left of the Greens through Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and UKIP – this cannot be a bad thing. We need representation of the while political spectrum.
However, I for one am not so sure about the admittance of the SNP and Plaid Cymru to the national debates. During the 2010 election, the SNP polled 1.7 percent of the national vote and Plaid Cymru took only 0.6 percent; although they have a strong support base in Scotland and Wales respectively, these parties by definition lack appeal to the rest of the country. While there may be some merit in hosting ‘devolved debates,’ these nationalist parties are simply not relevant to the vast majority of people in the UK and should not be involve in nationwide debates.
Including these two nationalist parties is a huge mistake, exacerbated by the fact that Northern Ireland’s DUP actually holds more seats than both the SNP and Plaid, yet has bizarrely been side-lined. How can the BBC or ITV say they are less relevant than their Welsh and Scottish counterparts?
One solution to these calls for admittance would also be to set an arbitrary polling threshold for admittance to the televised debates, either from opinion polls from the start of the election year, or from the previous election. Similarly, there could also be a requirement for participants to have candidates in a certain proportion of constituencies. For if it is to be a 7 party panel, or even 8 if the DUP keep the pressure up, the debates cease to be a meaningful exercise; having too many parties involved will prevent any real discussion of the issues and will reduce policies to sound-bites.
Televised debates are clearly imperfect – their results are mixed and we cannot be sure they any real effect on how the election pans out. However, in a time as politically fluid as this they are a necessity.
Gone are the days of two party politics. Britain is entering a period of multi-party politics, the Westminster al efficacy has nlti-party politic, and disengagement with politics as a whole has never been more pronounced.u To get people interested in politics and feeling part of the process you have to give them something to watch and learn from – not the Punch and Judy politics of Westminster we have all grown so accustomed to. Televised debates representing the whole spectrum of British politics at least give us a chance to boost engagement.
Photo Credit: Dominic Tristram