…or why ‘Prime Ministerial Debates’ cause nothing but trouble and unnecessary judicial challenges.
No sooner are we finished with one glorious democratic process, than the countdown to the next one starts. The BBC, ITV and Sky revealed their proposals for the 2015 UK General Election TV Debates today and, like last time, there is a bit of a stooshie over who should appear how many times. As things stand, the debates will be:
SKY – April 2nd: David Cameron (Con); Ed Miliband (Lab)
BBC – April 16th: David Cameron (Con); Ed Miliband (Lab); Nick Clegg (LD)
ITV – April 30th: David Cameron (Con); Ed Miliband (Lab); Nick Clegg (LD); Nigel Farage (UKIP)
Just about everyone seems to disagree with these proposals in one way or another. The primary issue is that UKIP has been invited to take part despite only having their 1 MP sworn in this morning – while the Greens (whose lone MP Caroline Lucas was elected at the last general election) have not been asked. Nor have the SNP or Plaid Cymru, who you can argue are just as influential in the current UK political landscape.
So, Tory and Labour parties aside (their right to 3 appearances is universally accepted), what have parties should be represented in the debates – and why?
The Lib Dems
As obvious/contentious (delete to suit) a statement as this may be to make, the Lib Dems are a major force in UK politics. They are the minorest major party, but they are still a major party. They are the junior partner in the current coalition government and have the 3rd most MP’s in the Parliament. But, most importantly there is a theoretical chance that they could form an outright government in 2015. [ENOUGH LAUGHING IN THE BACK!]
I mean it. Mathematically, should there be a massive national change of heart, the Lib Dems are standing enough candidates that they could be elected to form a Lib-Dem only government. It’s unlikely, but it is a possibility. Surely then, the Lib Dems should play a part in all 3 debates, since, like the Tories and Labour, they could form a government and already have substantial representation and clout in parliament?
If you accept that this is theoretically possible, but politicly unlikely (read “wouldn’t happen in a million years”), and so the Lib Dems should only be at the 2 debates, isn’t the point of having the debates to inform the political argument, not the other way around? The Lib Dems received the most tangible benefit from the 2010 debates, arguably due to the fact they weren’t just a punchline, but on an equal footing to the two parties that had dominated government for the last 90 years. Because of that, they are now in government (albeit not leading it) for the first time since Lloyd George. You need a very good reason not to include the Deputy Prime Minister in an election debate – and I can’t see it.
The Greens and UKIP
So…UKIP. It is a party that had no representation in Westminster whatsoever until last week when it won it’s first ever by-election. The Greens, meanwhile, have had its 1 MP (the impressive Caroline Lucas) since 2010. The argument is that if UKIP are being invited on the back of Carswell’s election, the Greens should to. I fear, however, that this isn’t taking an holistic view of things.
While I’d imagine UKIP will have limited (if any) electoral success, their UK-wide support orbits the 17/18% mark, while the Greens can normally manage 5% on a good day. So far UKIP have announced 240 candidates for constituencies in all parts of Great Britain. The Greens, meanwhile have announced candidates in just 81. While UKIP haven’t hit that magic number of 326 yet (i.e. 50% of Westminster Seats + 1) it is not inconceivable that, like the Lib Dems, they will by the time next April rolls around and the registration deadline closes. In 2010 they stood in 558 seats, and in 2005 they tried in 496. The Greens, meanwhile, stood in just 182 seats in 2005 and still only 310 in 2010, leaving it 16 short from being able to achieve a governing majority, even on a perfect night. So UKIP and The Greens are two different beasts in the 2015 election as things stand. The former will field enough candidates that it could form its own government; the latter, if past trends are anything to go by, will not. Unless it does, the claim that it is a party similar in character to UKIP will be difficult to substantiate. If they do, however, inviting one but not the other will be nigh-on-impossible to justify.
The SNP and Plaid Cymru
So having dealt with UK-wide parties…what about the nation-specific parties in Great Britain: The SNP and Plaid Cymru? Dealing with The SNP first – the prima facie case for including them in the debates is plain. They are, and have been for the last 4 (arguably 5) years the biggest party in Scotland. They form the Scottish Government by majority, have have 6 MP’s already in Westminster and have, thanks to the post-#IndyRef surge in membership, are now have the 3rd largest membership figure in the UK. Excluding them from the debate, then would mean that the UK-establishment are neglecting a massive Scottish Voice…right?
Maybe – but let’s apply the test we’ve developed. Could the SNP mathematically form a UK government on a perfect night? The answer is most definitely no, since the SNP (quite fairly) only field candidates in the 59 Scottish seats. There is no way in which an SNP MP could become Prime Minster (save a disastrous night for the 2/3/4 main parties and there is a Rainbow coalition of the ‘Others’ with the SNP at its head). Why then should the SNP field somebody in what is a Prime Ministerial debate? Who that somebody would be is another issue that would need resolved. Nicola Sturgeon would seem the obvious choice, being the party’s leader and all. But unless she was intending to stand as an MP, the case for her getting involved in a Westminster TV debate is a difficult one to make. It may be more appropriate then for the SNP Leader at Westminster (Angus Robertson MP) to be the face of the SNP – but this might not have the electoral impact the SNP would be hoping for.
Plaid Cymru’s argument for inclusion is weaker still. It has all the regionalist-weakness of the SNP, fielding candidates in only the 40 Welsh seat in the past two elections, and none of the strength in numbers nor governmental advantage. It shoudl be said, though, it does have 3 times as many MP’s as either the Greens or UKIP. Even as the ‘nationalist bloc’ that is sometimes formed between the two, only 100 candidates would be fielded across the UK – well short of the number needed to govern. Add to this the fact that the Court of Session knocked back the SNP’s attempt to appear on the BBC’s 2010 debate. That’s not stopping them launching another challenge this year, but I can’t say I fancy their chances.
The broadcasters have said that there will be additional debates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where representatives of “one-nation-only” parties can make the case to the electorate to which they intend to present themselves. This seems a sensible suggestion, though it does mean that Labour, Tories and Lib Dems will have an extra bit of the cherry too, which presents its own problems.
It was suggested to me on twitter that the best way to solve the “who gets to appear and how many times” issue is to have the leaders of all the parties with at least 1 MP in, and everybody else out. There are currently 12 parties (and 1 independent) represented at Westminster so this option is clearly not workable. It also raises the question of whether the Northern Irish parties should be included in the debate given the unique characteristics of its electoral system.
The best way to avoid these pointless arguments and party-political one-upmanship is, of course, to recognise the fact the in the UK we don’t vote for a Prime Minister, we vote for MPs. The Prime Minister is simply the person who is able to “command the confidence” of the majority of those MPs sitting in the House of Commons. Sure, the leaders of the parties undoubtedly have an effect on that party’s image, but they don’t need the debates to make their mark. Most of them manage it pretty well already.