Outside the marginals

A commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010, 2015 & 2017 elections

Electoral Debates – One out; all out?

We know that the parties are motivated by self-interest when it comes to who they think should take part in the General Election Debates.

But what do the voters think?

In terms of pure entertainment we probably want either a straight dog-fight between Cameron and Miliband – or alternatively the complete madness of an all-in fight between everyone.

But it is as TV viewers that we are to be entertained. As voters it should be more than mere entertainment – we probably need to form an opinion about the decision that we have to individually make in the polling booth.

(For the purposes of this discussion, let’s exclude the idea that for most of us outside the marginals our vote makes no difference, our opinion does not really matter and therefore we do not have to be informed.)

No one (except possibly – and then only theoretically – the Monarch) actually chooses between Cameron and Miliband because they are standing in different constituencies. I will be choosing between the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, UKIP, possibly a North East Party candidate and, if the forthcoming election follows the last one, one or two independents. I think I will be spared the BNP.

Seeing a two-way dog-fight on TV probably does not help make the decision – and in fact probably biases me against any party other than the big two through lack of exposure. On the other hand perhaps a nasty vicious two-way will persuade me to vote for anyone but “those two”.

Obviously there has to be a limit to how many parties can take part in the debates – if only because a one hour debate involving say 20 parties would mean each party on average getting less than three minutes to put their case! Twenty parties contested the 2010 general election and there are 10 (now 11, post Clacton) parties represented in the House of Commons. (BBC News Website : 2010 Election Results)

The criteria seem to include that only “major parties” should be involved.

Ofcom have suggested that “major parties” should include UKIP – but not the Green party. On this basis the broadcasters are unlikely to include the Greens in the election debates.

It is notable that the Ofcom draft focuses heavily on ‘past electoral support’. The media regulator has failed to grasp the fast-moving, fluid state of British politics today, and that fact that voters are seeking out the choice of real change.

Ofcom should not be making that option harder to find, but ensuring that voters have the chance to hear and judge the full range of political options today. …

The Green Party is consistently polling at its highest levels ahead of a General Election since 1989 and ahead of the Liberal Democrats. Membership for the party rose by over 100% in 2014 and continues to surge. The Party will be standing candidates at least 75% of constituencies in May 2015, which will allow 50% more people the opportunity to vote Green than were able to do so in 2010.
Green Party 8 January 2015 : Ofcom’s initial view on major parties fails the electorate and democracy

But where to draw the line? Include the English Democrats or the more “far” Left Parties? What about all Independents?

Clearly it is something to do with levels of support and surely the opportunity to vote for a party. Which would seem to imply that the Greens should be included.

Some might say it also has to be something to do with the perceived likelihood of a party forming a government or being key to the creation of a coalition. This would include the Liberal Democrats and possibly UKIP, but due to the vagaries of the current electoral system, apparently not the Greens.

But excluding the Greens (and others) is almost saying we should not consider them because they are not relevant to forming a government. That is a poor criteria for choosing an MP and ignores the contribution that members of minor parties can make. (The Green’s sole MP has won awards since election from organisations as diverse as The Spectator, The Political Studies Association and Left Foot Forward.)

But what about the Scottish (and Welsh) Nationalists or even the Ulster parties – who might be key to the post-election horse-trading? In England, I can’t vote for the Nationalists or Ulster parties. I may not be interested in them as people to vote for, but I am interested in the impact they may have and I am very interested in how parties that I could vote for respond to them.

Current polling seems to indicate that the Scottish Nationalists in particular could be influential. They could take sufficient seats off Labour to deny Labour an overall majority but may be able to offer Labour a “confidence and supply” agreement to put Labour into Government.

We need to see the Scottish Nationalists put under examination in a UK-national debate. It is natural and inevitable that a party that rejects the concept of the United Kingdom will make demands that are distinctly Scottish even though those outside Scotland will dispute the “wider democratic” legitimacy of such demands. For the Scots Nats to just “emerge” after the election and to start making demands that have had little or no UK-wide exposure or examination prior to the election would be very damaging for the reputation of Westminster politics.

So, Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, UKIP, Greens, Scottish Nationalists. What about Plaid Cymru (currently with three MPs)? The argument may be an order of magnitude smaller than the argument for the Scottish Nationalists (with potentially tens of MPs in the next Westminster Parliament), but is essentially the same.

Some are saying that the various flavours of Ulster Unionism may be more influential than Plaid Cymru – but how do you involve the various strands of Ulster Unionism (DUP, UUP, TUV, etc.) in leaders’ debates? Or is that a step too far and we should dodge the issue by saying that Northern Irish politics and British politics are different – despite both being represented at Westminster.

If we argue that the SNP should be included in the UK debates because of their potential to influence the shape of government, does that argument extend to including Northern Irish parties who may do deals? If the Greens, the SNP and Plaid are included (and they are most likely to do deals with Labour) should we also include the DUP and UUP as well as UKIP (who are most likely to extract some form of deal from the Conservatives)?

It is relatively simple to argue that “4” should be “5” by including the Greens.

Given the impact they might have, the SNP must surely also be involved (and that makes it impossible to exclude Plaid Cymru). So “5” becomes “7”.

Do we then add the main two Northern Irish Unionist parties? “7” becomes “9”.

What if the Alliance Party and the SDLP ask for parity? “9” becomes “11”.

(It would be mischievous, but not impossible, for Sinn Féin to also ask to take part. “11” becomes “12”?)

I suspect that the powers that be would resist adding the BNP as the 13th party – fortunately with “only” 564,331 votes last time (compared to the UUP’s 102,361) they do not have the same sway as their French counterparts.

In our semi-federal system there is further confusion in handling “UK-National” debates.

England does not have significant “National” parties (ignoring UKIP’s heavy English emphasis), so UK-National debates do not have a distorting effect in England.

In Scotland and Wales broadcasting UK-national debates involving just the UK 5 (Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, UKIP and Greens) would be seriously distorting and would look silly.

Yet to have special arrangements for Wales and Scotland with their own debates (involving 6 parties – the Scottish “branches” (!) of the UK 5 plus the Nationalists) instead of the UK-wide debates is a double distortion.

First the Scots and Welsh would not see the UK 5 leaders in debate and second the UK 5 leaders would – if only broadcast in England – tend to debate issues with an English bias.

I suspect that voters in Scotland and Wales would not want a double dose of debates – their own and then the “biased” UK debates that excluded Nationalists.

It is one thing to argue for more participants, but what shape should the debates then take?

Question Time on the BBC involves five participants and occasionally six and seems to work but is probably near the limit. I could see seven participants working in a reasonably long debate, but nine (which would be required to include the Ulster Unionists) may be too disjointed.

Under the current “four participant proposal” the broadcasters are proposing three different formats involving different combinations of parties.


This strikes me as a fudge and illogical. The Conservatives and Labour get three debates, the Liberal Democrats two debates, and UKIP one debate. The different formats may serve the needs of the Broadcasters to:

  • Offer the “full” spectrum: Cameron, Clegg, Miliband, and Farage
  • Do the same as last time: Cameron, Clegg and Miliband
  • Offer the “X-Factor” style debate-off between the top two: Cameron and Miliband

How does this serve the need to contribute to the electoral process?

It’s not an elimination contest! Some voters may even think it is and will believe that UKIP were “sent home” after the first debate (what an (in)appropriate denouement for them) and that the Lib Dems fail to make the final.

In making my decision, why do I:

  • Not need to see the Green’s Leader
  • Only need to see Farage once (OK some say once is all you need)
  • Only need to see Clegg twice (once for each cheek?), but
  • Need to see Cameron and Miliband three times!

But I am not voting for Cameron or Miliband! I don’t elect a Prime Minister, I (in theory) elect a Member of Parliament – who is meant to represent me and others in the constituency and contribute to being part of a House of Commons (again in theory) representative of the whole country.

We do not have a “Presidential System” – and I hope that remains the case. So I need to know my candidates and their parties’ proposals. That requires full-spectrum debates not presidential slug-outs between the two most likely prime ministerial candidates.


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One thought on “Electoral Debates – One out; all out?

  1. Pingback: Electoral Hypocrisy (part 1 of goodness knows) | Outside the marginals

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