Whatever else you might have read, David Cameron is the comfortable favourite to come out of May’s election as Prime Minister. So he doesn’t want TV debates. Of course he doesn’t. Why rock the boat?
He certainly doesn’t want any TV debates which include Nigel Farage. After all, we all saw what happened when Nick Clegg tried to use rational argument against Farage. Everyone in Westminster thought Clegg had won the debate hands down, but the public thought the opposite.
The proposals for TV debates are as follows:
(1) a two-header between David Cameron and Ed Miliband
(2) a three-way debate which also includes Nick Clegg
(3) a third debate which also includes other “major party” leaders
(4) Regional debates in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, including nationalist parties
OfCom have now ruled that UKIP is a “major party” for the purpose of the third debate but the Green Party is not, which means the third debate will include Cameron, Miliband, Clegg & Farage.
David Cameron certainly doesn’t want that. He’d rather not debate Farage at all, but he certainly doesn’t want Tory votes seeping to UKIP unless Labour are also going to shed votes to the Greens. So he had the idea of using the Green Party’s exclusion as an excuse to hold the broadcasters hostage. As Paddy Ashdown rightly said, “not since the photos of Cameron driving huskies have green issues been so cynically harnessed to Tory interest.”
But that doesn’t mean David Cameron is necessarily wrong.
Both the Greens and UKIP are, essentially, single issue parties, so on that basis alone there’s a perfectly reasonable argument for neither of them to be included in the debates. After all, what will Natalie Bennet or Nigel Farage have to say about our education policy? You don’t know, or care, do you? It brings to mind the appearance of phone-hacking expert lawyer Charlotte Harris on BBC1’s Question Time. Brilliant on her specialist subject, but when other topics came to be discussed, her opinions were an embarrassing waste of air time.
I’m not sure what good reasons justify the holding of three national debates. Appeasing the three major news channels, each of whom want to claim a debate as their own, hardly strikes me as being one of them, nor does the fact that that’s what happened last time. But be that as it may, the broadcasters want the third debate and it looks like they will get it.
Ostensibly, OfCom’s position seems arguable enough. UKIP are currently polling at around double the level of the Greens and also have double the number of MPs. The line has to be drawn somewhere, otherwise George Galloway would be included as a major party too.
But OfCom are broadcasting experts, not political experts, and the argument is rather more complicated than the one they have presented. Yes, UKIP now has two MPs and the Greens only have one.
But by the time of the election campaign, UKIP’s two MPs will have served for just 6 months each. Not only has Caroline Lucas been a Green MP for 5 years, far longer than the two UKIP members put together, but more importantly, she won her seat at a General Election.
Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell were both elected at recent by-elections, in circumstances where the electorate knew that they could lodge a safe “protest vote” with UKIP, which would not affect the make-up of the Government. Had Prime Minister Ed Miliband been a potential consequence of voting UKIP in Clacton, Or Rochester & Strood, the outcomes of those by-elections might have been very different.
By contrast, Labour had held the Brighton Pavilion seat throughout their years in Government and their voters knew full well in 2010, that voting Green carried a risk of helping put David Cameron in Downing Street, but they did it anyway.
We don’t know whether UKIP will be taken seriously by voters in the General Election. We do know that the Greens will be. This strikes me as at least as strong an argument for the Greens’ inclusion, as the temporary popularity currently being enjoyed by UKIP.