Thursday 16 October 2014


UK broadcasters caused a stir this week, by announcing the UKIP leader Nigel Farage would be included in televised debates ahead of the 2015 General Election. The proposal is to have three debates between party leaders:
  • Conservatives and Labour
  • Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats
  • Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, and UKIP
The 2010 election debate.
Source: BBC News

All party leaders not named Farage are furious. The leaders of the bigger parties want all of the smaller ones to be excluded, while other small parties want their own place in the debates. Can there be a fair and reasonable solution?

Here is a breakdown of UK political parties:

  • The Big Three: Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats. Between them, they had 88% of votes in the 2010 General Election.
  • Nationalists: The SNP and Plaid Cymru, which only put forward candidates in Scotland and Wales, respectively.
  • Smaller UK parties: UKIP, the Green Party of England and Wales (and its allied parties in Scotland and NI), the BNP, the Respect Party, and others. (Many others; Wikipedia lists 52 parties in the 2010 election, excluding independents.)
  • Northern Ireland: Including the DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP, and Alliance. By convention the Big Three do not stand in NI seats, so the campaign is effectively separate from the mainland UK, and it is uncontroversial to exclude NI parties from election debates (at least for now).

The shares of votes (in the 2010 election) and seats (following last week's by-election in Clacton) for the mainland parties are:

Party% of vote (2010)Seats (16/10/2014)
Liberal Democrat23.056
Plaid Cymru0.63

Based on their share of the vote and the precedent of debates in 2010, there is a clear case for including the Liberal Democrats. After that, it becomes much more murky.

The highly inclusive approach can be ruled out on practical grounds. Taking parties with at least one MP, or at least 1% of the vote, would include all nine of the above party leaders. On the same platform, we would see David Cameron, George Galloway, Nicola Sturgeon, and whoever currently leads the BNP. That would not be a debate, but a circus. It might be entertaining, but as a public service it would leave much to be desired.

An even more extreme position is taken by certain online petitions, which have attracted tens of thousands of votes calling for all political parties to be included in the debates.

On the surface, nothing could be more democratic; but really, all 52 of them? Including Cornish nationalists, the Animal Welfare party, and by my count at least 10 far-left splinter groups? We would need some sort of Thunderdome-style debate arena, and David Dimbleby would collapse within the first five minutes.

It's not going to happen. Some of the smaller parties are going to be disappointed.

Excluding the nationalists

In my opinion, the Scottish and Welsh national parties should not appear in UK debates.

This may not be popular in Scotland. In its current pugnacious, post-referendum mood, the SNP demands equal representation in the UK debates. Before joining this demand, Scots should stop and honestly ask themselves: Do I care what Leanne Wood thinks?

Wood is the leader of Plaid Cymru, but it is safe to say the overwhelming majority of Scots do not know this. I follow politics more closely than most, but I have never lived in Wales and resorted to Google to learn her name.

Of course the SNP is bigger and more successful than its Welsh counterpart, but that is not the point. Neither party contests more than 9% of UK seats. It does not matter if Leanne Wood has the wisdom of Solomon, the ferocity of Boudica and the moral integrity of Mandela; people outwith Wales do not have the option of voting for her party.

The debates serve a dual purpose; they showcase party policy, and the personalities of the leaders. In terms of policy, the proposed debate between party leaders from the Scottish Parliament is perfectly adequate. If anything, the distinctly "B-squad" look of the UK Big Three's leaders at Holyrood will work to the advantage of the SNP.

As for personality, no doubt it would be interesting for Scottish and Welsh voters to see how Sturgeon and Wood respectively stand up against the Big Three leaders. I imagine the nationalists are more than capable of holding their own. The problem is, both nationalist leaders are irrelevant to more than 90% of UK voters. In a debate for the whole of the UK, it is hard to justify their inclusion.

Last month Scotland voted to remain part of the UK; that entails certain compromises, and I think the election debates will have to be one of them.

The Canadian comparison

Canada has a similar parliamentary system to the UK, and has held televised election debates since 1968. An informal rule of thumb is that a party should have representation in Parliament, and at least 5% of the vote at the previous election, to be allowed into the debates. This includes Canadian equivalents of the Big Three, and sometimes the Bloc Quebecois and Green party.

(Like the SNP and PC, the Bloc is a national party which does not stand outside Quebec; but it polls up to 14% of the Canadian vote, contests 78 of 338 seats, and has at times been the second largest party in Parliament, which makes a substantial case for including it.)

Under the Canadian rule, no party other than the Big Three would come close to qualifying. The nearest would be UKIP, with one MP and 3.1% of the vote in 2010; or the SNP, with its 6 MPs and 1.7% of votes.

It would have been defensible to repeat the procedure of 2010, and simply hold debates between the Big Three party leaders. In choosing not to do this, the broadcasters have opened a sizeable can of worms.

Kippers rising

There are two reasons to add UKIP to the debates, one good and one bad.

The good reason is that UKIP's popularity is rising. They have successfully tapped into widespread disgust with politics as usual. In the 2014 European elections they were the most popular party with 27% of the vote, albeit on a pitiful turnout of 34% in an election which the British public has never taken very seriously. In the 2015 election, they will undoubtedly improve on their performance in 2010. A recent anlaysis indicates they are strong contenders to win up to 5 seats.

UKIP is all but certain to be one of the four largest parties by share of the vote in 2015. It is not completely implausible for it to overtake the Liberal Democrats and claim third place, or at least come very close. The UK is supposed to be a democracy, and whether we like it or not, popularity demands attention.

The bad reason is one which has itself fuelled UKIP's rise: Sensationalism.

UKIP's policies are hateful, incoherent, or sometimes both. Instead of trying to win on substance, it is appealing to a vague desire for change. Offering change is not enough by itself, otherwise the Green party would be far more successful than it is. The other salient attribute of UKIP, and Nigel Farage in particular, is a taste for showmanship.

If political parties were relatives, the Green Party is the sensible great-aunt who never forgets your birthday, and encourages you to work hard and eat your vegetables. UKIP is the disreputable uncle who turns up at a wedding, sexually harasses bridesmaids half his age, and makes a hideously embarrassing drunken speech. Never mind which is more intelligent and trustworthy; which one makes better television?

Farage's plain-speaking, man-of-the-people act is just that; but in the current political environment, this matters little. Even an inferior, phony attempt at authenticity is better than Cameron, Miliband or Clegg can manage. In this respect Farage resembles the London mayor, Boris Johnson. If the voters aren't offered leadership, a significant number will settle for entertainment.

UKIP's triumph of style over substance is abetted by the media. Being television-friendly gets you more screen time, bringing more popularity, and even more screen time. For example, on the BBC's discussion show Question Time, Farage alone has appeared at least 16 times since 2009, while the entire Green Party has appeared only 11 times.

Broadcasters have a serious responsibility to inform the public; but they are also chasing ratings. Farage is good for ratings, so from their perspective that is a reason to include him.

Including the Greens?

I must admit to some personal bias here. I have a lot of time for the Green Party. They have important things to say, and in England they are the only alternative to the Big Three with a serious, well-reasoned range of policies. If UKIP must be included in the debates, I would like to see the Greens appear too.

If we expand the televised debates beyond the Big Three, what principle should guide us? Is it enough to simply decide UKIP is interesting and popular enough to be promoted to the top table? Or can we adopt some more general rule?

Here is a rule which might be helpful:

  • To be included in the debates, a party should:
    • Field candidates in a majority of UK seats
    • Have at least one MP in the current Parliament
This would include both the Greens and UKIP, while excluding Respect, the BNP, and the nationalist parties.

The principle is quite simple: The debates are meant to serve the UK as a whole. Any party in the debates should be offering itself to a majority of British voters, and have proven it has sufficient appeal to elect an MP in at least one of the 650 constitutences in Parliament.

Of course any rule will be somewhat arbitrary, and we can concoct thresholds to include or exclude many combinations of minor parties, but I think the above rule is a straightforward and reasonable choice.

Don't panic

The election debates are important, but that importance has its limits.

Research on election debates in the USA shows they do little to sway voters. The Liberal Democrats hoped the 2010 debates would increase their stature, making them seem equal to the Conservatives and Labour. In fact they won 5 fewer seats and only 1% more of the vote than in 2005. In the specific case of UKIP, the debates between Farage and Clegg on the European Union earlier this year seem to have made little lasting difference.

The broadcasters will make their decision based on some combination of high principle and low sensationalism. Personally, for whatever it is worth, I have signed this petition asking for the Green Party to be included.

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