To say that the current state of play over TV debates before the General Election is a complete farce is an under-statement. No one has come out of this slow-motion disaster with any real credit. The broadcasters clearly did not think through their plans sufficiently by initially excluding the Greens but, having addressed that issue, they are still denying the Northern Irish parties any role in the planned debates. So they still haven’t got it. Either you include all the political parties with MPs in Parliament or just forget it. The DUP is still considering taking legal action and I think—based on even the tightest legal definition of ‘reasonableness’—that they have a good chance of winning. If it is ‘reasonable’ to include the Greens, then it is undoubtedly reasonable to include the DUP which had many times more MPs.
I can’t see how the group of broadcasters responsible for coming up with the plan for the debates failed to appreciate just how unfair and unreasonable their decisions have been, when the solution was blindingly obvious. The critical distinction is not whether political parties have MPs in Westminster but whether those MPs are members of a UK party. This means that the UK debates should be between the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens and UKIP. This does not mean the other national parties are excluded from debate but their involvement should be confined to televised debates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is so obvious a distinction that I’m surprised that no broadcaster appears to have come up with it.
Politicians have been equally culpable. David Cameron, a staunch advocate of the debates in 2010, had done just about everything he can to stymie them in 2015. His argument appears to be that if the debates are held during the campaigns, then they’ll ‘suck the air out of them’. The threat of the empty podium, one response from the broadcasters, is simply childish and is something that equally might be challenged in the courts. Ed Miliband, the Martini man…any time any where, any place…is little better and was quite prepared to accept that the Greens not be included…he can hardly claim the moral high-ground on the issue.
The problem is that politicians of whatever party want the debates to be structured to benefit them while the broadcasters want good television and neither should, on the basis of the fiasco that has evolved, be left in charge of anything to do with it. Far better for a body like the Electoral Commission to draw up the structure of the debates and that political parties and broadcasters have no right of veto over them. Having the debates is something that the electorate overwhelmingly support but I fear that the issue has become so toxic that it might be better if they did not take place at all.