Last week the broadcasters collectively put together a proposal for leader debates for next May’s general election. The proposal is for three debates. The first is to involve David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage. The second a debate (along the lines of those in 2010) between Cameron, Miliband and Clegg and finally a head to head debate between the two potential Prime Ministers, David Cameron and Ed Miliband
With the exception of UKIP, this proposal appears to have pretty much upset everyone, though it is important to understand what the objections that have been put forward are, in each case, really about. It is important to remember that unless the main party leaders agree there will be no debates.
Conservatives: David Cameron has raised the question (which I discuss further below) as to why on earth UKIP are being included, when the Greens (who have the same number of MPs, ie 1) are not being included. The Tory strategy is so far as possible to scupper the debates taking place at all without looking like they are running scared. The calculation is that the incumbent usually has the most to lose in debates and that the expectations of Ed Miliband are so low that almost anything he does will be seen as exceeding those expectations. If the debates are to go ahead then the last thing they want is for UKIP to be involved – the greatest risk to David Cameron remains leakage of votes to the Kippers and those who have already leaked not coming back, and Farage’s presence as an equal makes this a lot more likely. This is what the exclusion of the Greens complaint is really about – preventing the debates from taking place or, if that fails, preventing Nigel Farage from being included.
Labour: Similar to David Cameron, the last thing that Ed Miliband wants is for the Greens to be part of the debates. So far they are not, but the logic of their inclusion is difficult to resist (particularly as some polls are now putting them above the Lib Dems). The Greens have real potential to squeeze the middle class and student Labour vote, in the same way as the Lib Dems did in 2005 and 2010. The Greens (in Caroline Lucas) have a much admired (if under seen) MP (even if she is not the party’s leader) and have some clear principled policies (renationalisation of rail, end to austerity etc) which many have urged Miliband to adopt and which, in the light of Labour’s apparent minimalistic policy offer, are likely to prove to be attractive to many (including some of the allthatsleft team). Equally Ed Miliband is not terrifically keen on Farage being part of the debates, partly because it makes the Greens’ case for inclusion so much stronger and party because UKIP have the potential to eat into Labour’s traditional working class support through their position on immigration. Unlike, David Cameron, Ed Miliband wants the debates to go ahead but Labour’s ideal is a re-run of 2010, with Labour the only alternative to the government on display.
Lib Dems: The Lib Dems are the least happy of all. Nick Clegg feels that as a party of government he deserves equal status with Cameron and Miliband and is therefore deeply unhappy about being excluded from the critical head to head debate. Of course, this objection (when compared to that of the Greens) is actually pretty weak. The idea of a debate between the realistic contenders for the office of Prime Minister has the merit of logic on its side and, on any view, Nick Clegg is not a realistic Prime Ministerial contender. As the polls stand the Lib Dems may be lucky to end up 4th in the popular vote next May. In many way then they should be glad that the proposal only excludes them from one of the three debates and still envisages one three way 2010-style debate. Having said that the Lib Dems are one of the parties who have indicated that they will seek legal review of the proposal (something that is only necessary if the other parties agree to the proposal, as otherwise it remains no more than that).
Greens: The Greens have the biggest reason to be unhappy with the proposal. Although UKIP are (currently) ahead of them and the Lib Dems in the polls, the Greens do have, in Caroline Lucas, parliamentary representation and represent a growing and distinct force on the left of British politics. Polls have recently shown them regularly even or (in one case) just ahead of the Lib Dems. Thus if the logic of UKIP inclusion is that they now have an MP, then the Greens should be included. If the logic is that UKIP have support in the opinion polls at a certain level, then with the Lib Dems included in two of the three debates, it is hard to deny the Greens’ right to be included, in at least one debate. The biggest problem the Greens have, as a matter of principle, is that if it comes down to having an MP, then why not also include Respect. The practical problem they have is that it is doubtful that they can afford expensive litigation to get themselves into the debates.
Nationalist/N Ireland Parties: The SNP and Plaid Cymru have also expressed dissatisfaction. Of course the Scottish, Welsh nationalist parties, and the Northern Ireland parties with parliamentary representation have similar arguments to the Greens as to why they should be included. There is, I think, a principled difference, which is none of those parties purports to be a UK wide national party.
With no real history of precedent (a one off in 2010 is, at the moment, just that) for leader debates in general elections and a parliamentary system, based on the election of MPs rather than direct election of the Prime Minister, the logic of the debates is always likely to be difficult to apply with consistency. This also means there is plenty of material there for parties to use to avoid debates altogether if they wish to or to make it difficult for them to go ahead. The Independent’s John Rentoul is of the view that there will be no debates. I am less sure about that, but I doubt very much that how they end up will be anything like the proposal currently suggested.
For what it is worth, if there are debates, I think there should be:
2 x head to head debates between David Cameron and Ed Miliband
1 x leaders debates between all UK-wide parties with parliamentary representation (including UKIP, Greens and, yes, George Galloway)
1 x Scottish debate
1 x Welsh debate
1 x Northern Irish debate.