Don’t blame David Cameron if the televised leaders’ debates don’t happen

by Stephen Tall on January 14, 2015

Let’s take it as read that the leaders of the Conservatives and Labour have to be present for the televised debates — after all, it is one of those two parties which will supply the next Prime Minister and will form (the major part of) the next government.

It follows that the leader of the Lib Dems is included in the televised debates — after all, they have a record in government to defend this time round and it’s not fair for Labour and the Conservatives to be free to attack it in his absence.

It follows then that the leader of Ukip is included in the televised debates — after all, they beat both the Conservatives and Labour in the most recent national election, and have consistently out-polled the Lib Dems for much of the past year.

It follows then that the leader of the Greens is included in the televised debates — after all, they (not Ukip) have won a seat at a general election, and some polls show them ahead of the Lib Dems.

It follows then that the leader of the SNP is included in the televised debates — after all, they have more MPs than Ukip and the Greens combined and could plausibly end up a larger party than the Lib Dems.

It follows then that the leader of the DUP  is included in the televised debates — after all, it is currently the fourth-largest party in the House of Commons.

It follows then that the leader of Plaid Cymru is included in the televised debates — after all, if major parties from Scotland and Northern Ireland are represented, you cannot exclude Wales.

That makes eight leaders who should be included in any televised debate (even if you exclude the leader of Respect because George Galloway).

Inviting Nick Clegg to all three debates in 2010 established a precedent for including a party leader who wouldn’t become Prime Minister. It set up the domino-effect we see above, which makes it logically impossible to draw a line including one party leader and excluding another.

David Cameron doesn’t want the televised debates to happen: the risk of taking part is greater than the likely reward. But for the media to claim he’s the only obstacle is rubbish. Party politics is now more complicated, fragmented. Until the broadcasters come up with a solution that recognises that reality, party leaders looking to dodge a debate have a ready-made excuse.

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6 comments

In addressing the reality you describe so well, I wonder to what extent broadcasters are constrained by current legislation regarding political balance and impartiality?

by Paul Griffiths on January 14, 2015 at 1:52 pm. Reply #

We don’t have to draw a precedent from 2010. Firstly it was the first time they happened, so mistakes were likely, and binding ourself to follow the first attempt at anything seems ridiculous. Secondly, if a week is a long time in politics what does 5 years count as? Things change, we have to adapt.

There’s no easy option but saying we need to follow one structure in all debates makes it so much harder. With the massive party system fragmentation there’s virtue in a U.S primary style debate, particularly with minor parties potentially very important in post election negotiations. But then to get more substance the field will obviously have to be narrowed down.

by Louis on January 14, 2015 at 2:47 pm. Reply #

It doesn't follow that if you include the Greens and UKIP than you should include SNP, Plaid etc. The Nationalist parties will only stand in a tiny fraction of UK seats, it doesn't make sense to include them in debates intended for a UK-wide audience. Your headline says 'don't blame Cameron', and in the final sentence you completely contradict that. "…party leaders looking to dodge a debate have a ready-made excuse." Cameron is looking to dodge a debate, I blame Cameron.

by Richard Church on January 14, 2015 at 3:16 pm. Reply #

Clegg’s argument (and I think perhaps that of Miliband and Farage) is that the broadcasters *have* come up with a place to draw the line – you might disagree with where, but it’s the line they’ve come up with. And that it is Cameron who is holding the whole thing to ransom by insisting on his own different line.

by Jeremy Hargreaves on January 14, 2015 at 4:49 pm. Reply #

Surely no PM will ever be up against a weaker leader of the main opposition than this one; a wasted opportunity here as there is a great chance that Miliband will cock-up again. The Greens will always take more votes from Labour than the Tories. Miliband knows the same applies to Ukip and the Tories. There is no principle involved here other than one of self interest.

by David OWEN on January 14, 2015 at 9:19 pm. Reply #

Not sure I agree, Richard. The Greens will most likely have only one MP still after the next election. In reality, then, the SNP's manifesto (or indeed the DUP's) is far more relevant and important to the UK if there's another hung parliament, as they'll be in a position to prop up a Labour/Conservative government. Under the current electoral system, the Greens are more irrelevant than Plaid Cymru.

by Stephen Tall on January 15, 2015 at 11:35 am. Reply #

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