Opening the Debate

10848740_10152718278799092_2829947560669009191_oSo, David Cameron doesn’t want to debate unless the Greens are invited, while UKIP, Labour and the Lib Dems are quite happy to go ahead without the Greens OR the Prime Minister…

I’m sure their reasons for this are all wholly selfless and down to a sense of justice and fairness.

Ok, I’m joking.  These political games are so evidently about self interest, excluding people who might split your vote or including people who might split your opponent’s vote that even Nick Robinson feels compelled to admit it.

I’ve ranted before about Ofcom’s draft decision to deem the Greens as a minor party and I could go off for another thousand words about the inherent wrongness of that decision, but I think it’s more important to try and puncture the concept of major and minor parties, especially when it comes to supposedly impartial broadcasting.

What is a major political party? One which has previously experienced electoral success? One which is polling well? One which has a notable number of members nationwide? One which has a long and glorious history?

A major political party is all and none of these things, but one of the most important things about democratic politics is that established orders can change very quickly and as can be seen by current events in Greece and Spain, parties can go from fringe concerns (or not even existing) to significant parliamentary forces and potential governments in a short space of time.

Henceforth, in the argument as to who is ‘major’ enough to include in televised debates has to be reckoned on far more than current MPs and polling figures…

It’s also worth ramming home the power of the media in making this change happen – especially in a relatively conservative country like Britain (as compared to countries with a more vocal culture of protest, like Spain and Greece.  I’m sure the sunnier climate also helps.)

Ofcom said that UKIP counted as a major party because of their success in the European elections and their currently impressive polling, but you’d expect a broadcasting watchdog to understand that good polling and electoral success in probably the least important (in the eyes of the electorate, anyway), distinctly mid-term and prone to protest vote of elections is significantly influenced by the amount of media coverage a party receives.

Of course, UKIP have received a LOT of media coverage over the last four years, with Nigel Farage and his cronies almost a fixture on political TV panels in stark contrast to the general lack of exposure for the Greens – who’ve been about for longer and until recently had more representation at every level.

STOP PRESS: It was announced overnight that the Greens have overtaken UKIP in terms of membership, which again is pretty staggering given the relative paucity of media coverage and their dismissal as a minor party.

It should be the responsibility of media watchdogs and public broadcasters who are charter bound to impartiality (yes BBC, I mean you) to support the breadth of political opinion, whether the parties are likely to form the next government or not, whether their political editor likes a certain party or not, whether certain parties would rather not debate with others, or not.

Other countries hold televised debates with a damn site more than four party leaders on the rostrum with the chance to get their point across… why can’t Britain?

RTÉs-Election-Debate-07-630x332_Fotor_Collage

Of course, you can’t invite everyone who stands for election, because that would get a bit silly… There were 19 political parties who achieved more than 10’000 votes in the 2010 election with a further 325’000 votes going for smaller parties and independents. That’s not a debate, it’s a riot.

Furthermore, of those 19 parties at least half only stand in one of the UK’s constituent parts and as such would have little to add to a nationwide debate – although in the case of the upcoming election there is a significant case that the SNP should be invited as their current polling in Scotland indicates that they will be the third largest party at Westminster in May and potentially hold the balance of power, as well as being one of the three parties with the highest memberships in the whole country.

The line should not be between ‘major’ parties and ‘minor’ parties as making such a distinction willfully ignores the effect of such media bias on the result of polls and is instinctively biased towards the current order.

Rather, the question should be about making such debates as inclusive as possible without descending into a rabble.

I’d suggest having several national debates, one dedicated to a significant issue (economy, immigration, NHS etc.) between those parties who meet all of the following criteria.

– currently have representation at parliamentary level
– currently have a membership of more than 10’000 members
– are currently polling at higher than 3%, nationally*

This would result in nationwide debates including the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, UKIP, Greens and (arguably) the SNP.

* There is a case to make this cut off as low as 0.15% as if Britain used proportional representation then this is the amount of the vote a party would need to return an MP but seeing as the this wouldn’t change much in terms of who is included it doesn’t really matter.

Of course, it’s not proper that the regional parties who aren’t experiencing such an exceptional burst of popularity as that currently enjoyed by the SNP should be silenced, as they all have a right to make their case to their constituencies.

As such, I feel that regional debates, featuring Plaid Cymru in Wales, the SNP, Scottish Greens and SSP in Scotland, the myriad of Irish parties in Northern Ireland having their own debate and having debates just for England – perhaps even split on a regional level for North West / South East etc. with the likes of Respect, NHS Action Party and the English Democrats added in as appropriate would also be appropriate.

Have the national debates on the BBC, the regional ones on ITV and have further debates/panels online via Youtube or Facebook.

I acknowledge that these criteria are still based on polling data and prior electoral performance which has been skewed by prior media coverage but you have to draw a line somewhere.

It seems strange that a non-elected quango (Ofcom) and the distinctly right-wing leaders of the ‘major’ parties don’t seem to understand that democracy, like a healthy economy is best served by perfect competition, which requires that consumers (voters) have perfect (or at least access to fair) information about their choices.

Of course, selective blindness has always been the mark of those who crave profit and power and merely pay lip service to ideas like fairness and democracy.

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