I’ll lay my cards out straight off here; I’m not much of a fan of party leaders debates in the run up to general elections. We have a parliamentary, not a presidential, system in which we do not elect our heads of government. We elect our representatives to parliament.
What would, in my opinion, be more helpful would be 650 individual debates, one in each constituency in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. That way people can see the candidates that they can actually vote for going head to head, and make the best choice for their local area.
Time was, these were called hustings.
That, however, isn’t going to happen. Unless David Cameron feels he can somehow chicken out of the debates completely, some variation upon the head-to-head party leaders’ debates of 2010 will be happening.
So what would be the best arrangement?
The initial proposal of the broadcasters is for three differently constituted debates. The first would be just David Cameron and Ed Miliband, as the two politicians with a realistic chance of being Prime Minister. The second would add Clegg, as the most likely to partner in a coalition. The third, and final, would add Farage, because it’s not a political broadcast these days without him, apparently.
They would, as I understand it, be shown as follows: the first on Sky News and Channel 4; the second on BBC TV and radio; and the final on ITV.
It has caused some consternation that the Green Party isn’t to be included in the final debate alongside UKIP. I can see what they mean; they have, at present, the same number of MPs, and are polling not insignificantly. The SNP are also upset at their exclusion, because getting upset at Westminster is basically what they do these days.
I can understand not including the SNP. Similarly, Plaid Cymru, Mebyon Kernow (Cornish nationalists), all the Northern Irish parties, and the English Democrats. All of these parties pitch to a single geographic area of the the country, and so necessarily couldn’t form a government. To put up on a national debate groups who only offer to a minority of the population, makes no sense to me.
I have been sympathetic to the Greens cause (whilst sceptical at the legal basis of a challenge in the courts). But someone (the Chair of Young Fabians, James Hallwood) pointed out to me this morning that there is actually no UK Green Party. “The Green Party” is a fragmented group consisting of the Scottish Green Party and the Green Party of England & Wales. For anyone who is interested, in Northern Ireland it is a subsidiary of the Green Party in Ireland as a whole.
So do they qualify under my “whole UK” principle? Well…it depends. Will they issue separate manifestos? Will they have a raft of policies under which they will stand collectively, without internal contradiction? On a logistical level, who would be present: Natalie Bennett (leader of the Green Party of England & Wales) or Patrick Harvie and/or Maggie Chapman (“co-convenors” of the Scottish Green Party)? Or do they want Eamon Ryan, leader of the Irish Green Party?
And if we include the Greens on the basis that they are (if the are) a whole-UK party and have an MP, does that mean that we have to include Respect Party leader George Galloway? (Not necessarily a bad idea; the more people who see him, the fewer will vote for him -Ed)?
Maybe the Greens deserve to be there, maybe UKIP do, but neither of them are going to be running the country. If there has to be debates, which there probably does, the most sensible option would be to have it between the two potential Prime Ministers, David Cameron and Ed Miliband — not that I expect such a conclusion to make me popular with minor party supporters…