As the 7th of May draws ever nearer, the election campaign is beginning to get into full swing. One key issue that has got all the parties arguing is the format of the leader’s debates, an idea first trialled with great public approval in the 2010 General Election. The topic has dominated PMQs for weeks now and has seen u-turn after u-turn from broadcasters who can’t seem to decide who they want to appear. I for one am sick of having debates about debates, and feel that the issue needs to be sorted and boxed off so we can get back to the campaign proper. However, with recent rumblings coming from Northern Ireland that the SDLP amongst others will launch a legal challenge as a result of their exclusion, I doubt this will be the case. So I shall examine the variety of scenarios and formats put forward, and try and come up with something that might keep everyone relatively content.
The one key issue when it comes to the makeup of these debates is the definition of ‘major’ and ‘minor’ parties. The Lib Dems have the 3rd highest number of MPs and are a junior partner in the coalition government, but have consistently struggled to poll in the double digits since the last election. UKIP on the other hand have the most MEPs, have started to break the 20% mark in several polls, but have only two MPs in the Commons, both of whom were incumbents in their by-elections. Cameron argues that “you can’t have one minor party and not the rest”.
As I see it the Lib Dems must be included, purely to receive scrutiny on their actions in government, so any arrangement where they aren’t involved at all is out of the question. UKIP, whilst being an organisational shambles have undeniably caught the attention of a significant portion of the electorate, so they should be included in some form. Then we come to the Greens, the root of the initial argument over how these debates should take place. They have never polled over 10% and only hold one MP. It is also worth noting that they have lost their deposit in every single by-election held in this Parliament.
For me the Greens have not done enough electorally to be worthy of inclusion in these debates. Whilst many would argue that the Greens are blacked out by a right-wing media, I feel their surprisingly high membership (better than that of UKIP) gives them a good amount of ‘foot soldiers’ to go and graft for victories, which as of yet have eluded them. It would appear their brand of old-school socialism died with Michael Foot in 1983, and the vast majority of the electorate just seem them as “the party that care about climate change” an issue that is rather low down the electoral agenda for many voters.
So up to now we have Labour, the Conservatives, the Lib Dems, and UKIP, but a lot of hot air has been caused by regional parties such as the SNP and Plaid Cymru demanding inclusion in the debates. I think the SNP have a compelling argument for inclusion. They are the majority governing party in Scotland, and look set to take several seats away from Labour in May, and therefore potentially hold the balance of power. But there is one obvious point that wipes that entirely aside; they don’t field candidates outside Scotland. This must surely exclude them from any national debates, but I do feel they deserve to have a platform. I would therefore like to see a series of regional debates for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Scottish debate in particular would be fascinating, as Nicola Sturgeon, Jim Murphy and Ruth Davidson all come across well on TV, so it may well end up being rather ‘presidential’.
One final issue I would like to address is the idea of a Miliband vs. Cameron debate. I feel this is an absolute necessity. These are the only two people who have a chance of becoming Prime Minister. For them to battle it out on their own will bring out a lot of key characteristics as well as policies that could strongly influence voters in key swing seats, such as my own constituency Warrington South – a very tight Lab-Con marginal.
Ultimately there should be three debates for English constituencies. Two that contain Labour, the Conservatives, the Lib Dems, and UKIP, and a second that is just Cameron and Miliband. This would run alongside a series of debates in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland that would involve the party leaders relevant to that particular country. Hopefully the politicians and broadcasters can come to a similar conclusion and we can get on with fighting what will be the closest General Election for a generation.