Nic Conner is the Home and Social Affairs Research Fellow for The Bow Group, and a Fellow of The Royal Society of Arts. He previously worked for The Big Issue and currently works for EN Campaigns helping people set up their own businesses and become self-employed. Views expressed are strictly Nic’s own.
Let’s be honest: the TV debates are rubbish.
They’re basically a bunch of politicians peering sincerely into a camera, saying over rehearsed lines made up of sentences which mean nothing. It is a race between the most irritating people in the country to be the least offensive to the most number of people.
This is the same in every democracy whose broadcasters decide that the only way we voters will understand elections is if they make it into a prime time TV talent contest.
Truth is we just don’t do hyperactive prime time TV very well, and we just don’t take it that seriously. So getting geeky, middle-aged, slightly dull and grey people to do it is cringe-worthy.
It not just that we don’t do the razzle dazzle side of show business, it also that the format of a leader’s debate doesn’t really work with a Westminster style of democracy. As Margret Thatcher once said on TV debates “We’re not electing a president, we’re choosing a government”.
But as much as I detest this political version of ‘I’m a celerity get me out of here’ it is here, it is here to stay – and it is all David Cameron fault.
Cameron agreed in 2010 to hold UK’s first TV leader’s debate as he hopped it would give him that boost to push him over the line to win the 2010 election outright. He knew that he would walk all over Gordon Brown, the worst TV performer to ever be on our screens.
Cameron also thought his seduction of the more left-leaning media would mean that they would back him. He certainly didn’t foresee that the media would fall head over heels for another man.
Fast forward five years and we find ourselves on the eve of a General Election and the cusp of another round of presidential-style debates. The question now is not will they happen but who should be in them.
Last election it was credible to have just the two leaders who were in a position to lead a Government. Unfortunately the liberal media placed their then favourite Nick Clegg into the debate, arguing that if nobody won a majority then he and the Liberal Democrat’s would most likely form a Coalition Government.
The next election it is almost certain that neither the Conservatives nor Labour will win an outright majority. It is also probable that the Lib Dems won’t be in any state to form another coalition after a potential near-wipe out at the general election.
The broadcasters have realised that, if you include the Lib Dems in the 2015 TV debates because they might be ‘king makers’, then you must bring in UKIP and the Greens as well, for current polling shows both are more popular than the Lib Dems.
And if UKIP and the Greens are in the debates because they may be the ‘king makers’, then the broadcasters had to invite the SNP.
With the SNP in the debates it couldn’t just be on English issues, as many of the issues which will be fought over at the general election such as NHS, schools,police and local government are devolved issues to the Scottish Parliament.
The SNP won’t let any leaders’ debate focus purely on English matters. The SNP will move the debate to look at the arguments over future of devolving more powers.
With English and Scottish issues firmly on the agenda at the debates the broadcasters then included Plaid Cymru, even though Plaid Cymru has just three MP’s and eleven out of sixty Welsh Assembly Members.
All fine and good you may say, but the broadcasters appear to have forgotten one nation out of the four which make up the UK: Northern Ireland.
Why haven’t any of the Northern Ireland parties been asked to the debates? I put this to Sky News’ Adam Boulton, the instigator of the 2010 Election debates and chairman of Sky News’ 2015 debate.
Boulton said the reasons for not including any parties from Northern Ireland is that they do not compete directly with Conservatives, Labour or Lib Dems.
This is untrue: the Conservatives and UKIP, along with a local Green affiliate, all stand candidates in Northern Ireland at the general election. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) take Labour Party whip in the House of Commons, and the Alliance Party are basically the Lib Dems in Northern Ireland.
If we are going to have SNP and Plaid Cymru then we should have representation from Northern Ireland, as many of the issues which will be debated are devolved issues to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The largest party in Northern Ireland is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who are also be the fourth largest party in the House of Commons with eight MPs.
Compare this to the other potential kingmakers invited to the debates: the Greens have one; UKIP two; Plaid Cymru three; and the SNP six.
Moreover, currently only two of the seven parties who are included in the 2015 debates describe themselves as right-wing: the Conservatives and UKIP. The other five describe themselves as being on the left of the political spectrum.
The DUP is seen as conservative in outlook and its inclusion would rebalance the debate and would allow voter see what a right-wing terms of a deal would be.
The tricky thing is, if you have the DUP in the debates you would have to include Sinn Féin.
I would happily tell them they cannot join the debate until their MPs take up their seats in the House of Commons. After all, if they don’t take their seats then they won’t be involved in Parliamentary debates, the forming of legislation, or holding the Government to account.
But in reality if the DUP are invited, Sinn Féin should be invited too, in keeping within the spirit of Northern Ireland’s power sharing agreement.
So I ask you, Conservative Home reader, if you agree with me that the fourth largest party in the House of Commons should join parties far smaller in the 2015 TV leaders debate. If so, then please sign the petition.