Are the Greens a major party? Ofcom’s answer is a self-fulfilling one

by Stephen Tall on January 8, 2015

leaders debate

I’m unsure whether the leader of the Green party being included in the leaders’ debates in 2015 would help or hinder the Lib Dems. On balance, at least on this occasion, I think it would help.

True, the Lib Dems have leaked supporters to the Greens since 2010. But I think it’s Labour which has the potential to be hit harder by Natalie Bennett’s full-throated anti-austerity battlecry. Indeed, at least some of the decline in Labour’s poll lead over the Tories in the past year is the result of ex-Lib Dems re-defecting from Labour to the Greens. The publicity fillip of the televised debate would most likely assist that process.

Of course it’s possible there might be some kind of ‘Greenmania’ which sees the Lib Dems squeezed again, just as the ‘Nick v Nigel’ debates backfired with Ukip over-taking us. Perhaps the Lib Dems would be relegated into fifth place as a result. Perhaps. But as Lib Dem results will depend first and foremost on the incumbency of individual MPs in battleground seats, the party’s national share of the vote matters less this time around. My hunch is that Labour has more to lose, especially in seats like Cambridge and Hornsey where they’ll be hoping to oust the Lib Dems.

However, none of that is relevant to Ofcom. ‘All’ they have to do is work out whether the Greens count as a major party. They say not, but that Ukip do. Based on their criteria, they’re probably right to reach that conclusion – after all, Ukip has out-polled the Greens by some way in all elections (and polls) for the past decade. The Greens meanwhile can point to having beaten the Lib Dems at last May’s Euros and to occasionally besting the party in a handful of recent opinion polls — indicators which say more about the current unpopularity of my party than they do any particular massive enthusiasm for the Greens.

I’d be surprised if the Greens polled more than 5 per cent in May. However, there is more than a bit of a Catch-22 here. If Natalie Bennett’s included in the leaders’ debates, they might well do so thereby justifying any decision by Ofcom to designate them a major party; if she’s not, they probably won’t do so thereby justifying Ofcom’s current decision not to designate them a major party. Such remains the self-fulfilling power of media exposure.

I can’t be the only one uncomfortable with the idea that an unelected regulator is able to exert such influence on an election’s outcome, but, then again, I’m stuck as to what the alternative is. A televised leaders’ debate with every party leader going? No thanks. A televised leaders’ debate carved up between the Conservative and Labour leaders? No thanks.

I’m increasingly attracted by David Cameron’s preference: letting someone else decide there should be no televised leaders’ debate.