At the end of a tumultuous week in politics, a week in which the starting gun for a General Election was fired somewhat prematurely, and then overshadowed by tragic events in France, David Cameron chose to announce that as things stand he will not be participating in televised leaders’ debates ahead of the election. His stated reason? The exclusion from the debates of the Green Party.
He was fairly quickly condemned almost universally by his opponents and a vast array of commentators as prime (ministerial) poultry running scared from debating on his record, and attempting to hide this fact behind an ever-so-green fig leaf. It may well be true that Cameron is afraid of the debates, and even if his defence of the affronted Greens is both genuine and valid, he should still not be walking away from an innovation which the majority of the public now rightly seem to expect as an obligatory part of the electoral process. However, as it happens, I don’t think his defence of the Greens is valid at all, and thus (poultry or not) he stands embarrassingly naked behind the in fact non-existent fig leaf.
Why am I swimming against the Green tidal surge, I hear you ask. Surely the Greens’ possession of a seat in the House of Commons and their increased poll ratings make their inclusion an open-and-shut case? Not so. Close attention should be paid to the reasons given by the BBC for excluding the Greens in their letter (which they made publicly available in November) to the party’s Director of Communications Penny Kemp. In the letter, it is made clear that the BBC has a rigorous system in place designed to ensure the maximum possible objectivity when deciding which parties to invite to debate. They are scrupulously fair. They look at both past general election results (seats and votes), local election results, by-election and European parliamentary election results, and polling trends (based on averages over time from a range of respected companies, not cherry-picked individual polls). There are certainly criticisms that could be made; the whole process is not transparent enough, arguably there are too many variables included (not all of which are directly relevant), and the precise weight of different factors is not set out in any quantifiable form. Yet, the principles underlying the decision-making process are the right ones.
The Greens have had an MP since 2010, and UKIP have only joined them in that increasingly less exclusive club since 2014. Additionally, UKIP’s two MPs don’t make that much more impressive a collective imprint on Westminster’s benches than the Greens’ one. However, it should not be the number of MPs alone that is used as a criterion for inclusion in debates. Imagine a scenario in which there is mass public anger with a number of unjust acts of Parliament (I mean vastly outstripping the levels we see at the moment), anger that cut across party lines and manifested itself in extrememly high levels of support (perhaps exceeding 50%) for a new party (not UKIP, we are being hypothetical). If the broadcasters ignored such support as expressed in opinion polls and the useful indicators that are local election results, they would in effect be acting as if nothing is ever allowed to change in democratic politics.
At the very least, suggesting that parties have to prove themselves at the ballot box in one general election without full media exposure in order to even be considered for such exposure at subsequent general elections is out of step with the way modern democracies work. Events move fast, opinions can change fast, and public service broadcasters have a duty to reflect that in their coverage of elections. It should not even be possible (regardless of whether or not it is probable) that a party could win an election without having even been offered a debate platform equal to other major parties beforehand. And if it is true in this extreme case, then it seems only right that smaller significant poll shares should be considered as a factor as well.
At which point, it will be protested loudly by Greens that even though they are considerably outstripped by UKIP in opinion polls, they are nevertheless keeping good pace with the Liberal Democrats. Well, almost. When the broadcasters made their joint proposal for debates last year, the Greens were still averaging only around half the Lib Dems’ support. But wherever you fix the threshold for polling support, it remains the case that past election results deserve to be included as a criterion alongside polling figures. This is to counteract the sometimes imprecise science of polling with hard electoral data. For reasons I lack the space to go into, I think current seats matter more than past vote shares here. And when you compare the parties, the Lib Dems’ tally of 56 seats is a much more impressive figure than those of either the Greens or UKIP.
All that remains to be cleared up then is where to place the thresholds. How many seats should be the minimum required for inclusion in debates? What should be the minimum share of the vote in polls? The crucial point here is that there must be thresholds. Otherwise you have to let everyone in (possibly including independents), and that would quickly lead to farce. Facilitating meaningful and wide-ranging debate between the main contenders both for outright power and its balance in a hung parliament should be the priority here; undermining this function of debates would do a disservice to the voter. In determining where to place those thresholds, we must remember that we use the first-past-the-post electoral system. Broadcasters have to respect that in order to be impartial. Acting like we already use a proportional system would place cart before horse (elections are not proxy referendums on the voting system). As such, it is a party’s proximity to widespread seat gains that counts. A party on about 5% in the polls requires almost as big a swing from that position to win a seat as a party on a big fat nought. Similarly, one seat already held may as well be none in the grand task of building a powerful parliamentary party.
In short, UKIP (at about 15%) are polling high enough to make them a genuine contender in lots of seats. They won’t win more than a handful, but they are seen as a serious option in many. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems remain a substantial enough force in the Commons that they deserve the chance to defend their voting record there before voters cast judgement on them. The Greens do not (yet) meet either of these criteria. The effect this could have on other parties may be unlucky for David Cameron, but it is not unfair. The broadcasters have strict rules of impartiality, and they should not be made to bend them to accommodate one party’s interest. Arguably, if he walks away altogether, the debates should go ahead and he should be empty-chaired. Although, on reflection, in the interests of political neutrality the broadcasters should probably refrain from placing a fig leaf on it.
By Dominc Chave-Cox