Excluding the Greens and other parties in favour of Ukip will leave the election debates devoid of even a modicum of diversity
by Alex Andreou
Broadcasters yesterday announced their proposed format for televised election debates. Sky and Channel 4 are opting for a presidential style, David Cameron v Ed Miliband head to head; the BBC will repeat its 2010 format which included the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders; and ITV will have the same three, plus the surprise inclusion of Nigel Farage, probably holding a pint of bitter.
This structure has caused much reaction from the four parties involved about the inclusion of Ukip. Farage – displaying the same sort of one potato two potato mathematical complexity that yielded “29 million Romanians and Bulgarians” – reckons if one MP means inclusion in one debate and Ukip wins the Rochester byelection, then surely two MPs means inclusion in two debates. The other leaders have expressed anger at Ukip’s elevation.
What is less clear is what any of them believe should be the position regarding parties that hold the remaining 28 seats in the House of Commons and their exclusion from the debates. The Green party has threatened legal action over its leader Natalie Bennett’s omission. Good on them.
The inclusion of Ukip to the exclusion of others is complete nonsense whichever way one cuts it. If one goes by number of MPs, questions regarding the exclusion of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parties loom large. The answer is, I suspect, that these are not national parties, followed by the non-sequitur that they must therefore have nothing to offer to a national debate. For a triumvirate that only a month ago was pleading with Scotland not to break up this “family of nations”, relegating all non-English parties to the children’s table is unfortunate in the extreme.
If one goes by how parties did at the last general election, then the exclusion of the Greens – who had an MP elected – in favour of Ukip is irrational. Perhaps convincing a constituency that electing the same MP wearing a different rosette represents real change is a magic trick worthy of TV. And how about the Social Democratic and Labour party that has twice the number? The broadcasters have cited the recent European election as a measure of Ukip’s popularity and irrefutable evidence of its worthiness for inclusion. But if that is the criterion, one must question the inclusion of the Lib Dems, who polled lower than the Greens on all measures and came a joint sixth with a host of other parties in terms of MEPs.
The only way to justify the inclusion of Ukip in these debates is by somehow extrapolating its future popularity in the next election by looking at meaningless opinion polls. Essentially the broadcasters are saying, “We think they will do well, so we are pre-emptively including them”. It is not up to a TV executive to be making any such subjective assessment. If you want to open the debate, then do so properly. Make it a panel discussion that includes genuinely diverse views.
I am certain that the expectation the inclusion of Ukip might make for salacious TV has also not been far from TV executives’ thoughts. It is the natural extension of the bizarrely dominant idea that if you include a person saying something sensible in any debate, you must also include the polar opposite, even if inflammatory and illogical, “for balance”. Which is precisely what has secured Ukip its popularity in the first place.
However, the exclusion of parties such as the Greens, the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru has another deeper effect. It excludes anyone who could lend a modicum of diversity to these debates; who might challenge the status quo on the environment, on devolution, on constitutional change, on free-market economics, on gender politics. What we have ended up with – again – is a platform of two, three or four rich, privileged, white, straight, middle-aged, male, career politicians from a tiny part of south-east England telling the rest of the country what is what.
This monochrome palette, this disturbing example of what Grayson Perry recently described as “the default man”, is bad for political engagement and grossly unrepresentative of the country. It ensures that large swaths of the voting population will flick on to the debates, see a pictorial representation of the same dull grey suits talking in soundbites and switch back to Britain’s Got Talent, secure in the knowledge that, if Britain does indeed have talent, politics is carefully sealed from any hint of it.
Reproduced with acknowledgements to The Guardian