On Saturday 21st March 2015 British broadcasting announced the final template for the UK political debates, which are taking place before the General Election on May 7th. Weeks of wrangling finally seem to be over, and it would appear that both the political and broadcasting groups INVOLVED are by and large pleased with the outcome.
In 2010 the UK held their first ever election debates with the three main national party leaders taking part in three discussions. I’ve seen the viewing audience figures for these described as 22 million, but I’m unsure if this is an average number, the largest number for a particular evening, or a cumulative one. Anyway the project was deemed a great success and the process considered from that point onward, as an integral part of the general election campaigns. Undoubtedly the biggest winner in 2010 was Liberal leader Nick Clegg the least known debating member, compared to Conservative David Cameron and the then Labour leader Gordon Brown. The Liberals could promise many things in their manifesto without the concern of having any real chance of winning power and having to make good on them. In the 2010 election the Liberals did better in the polls than usual, which gave Nick Clegg the leverage needed to broker a deal to form a coalition with David Cameron and the Conservatives. However, that coalition deal I feel has caused the Liberal party irreparable damage as their promises have shone less brightly working in the shadow of Conservative dominance.
Initially for 2015 the broadcasters tabled the proposal of three debates (all held in April), two of them with multi-party participation and one a head-to-head debate between Labour’s Ed Miliband and Conservative’s David Cameron. These two men are the ONLY ones with the party power and public support behind them to take the keys to No.10 Downing Street in May. Unlike Ed Miliband who declared he would debate anyone, anywhere at any time, the Prime Minister David Cameron began making demands to change the debate format. He would only take part if the Green (!) party were included, then he would not go head-to-head with Labour and finally he would only take part in one multi-party debate. Initially the broadcasters held out against these demands even suggesting the preposterous notion of an empty chair, or that an un-elected media minion could stand in for the Prime Minister instead. Finally though the media capitulated and reformatted the debate platforms to accommodate the Conservatives stipulations. So what are we left with?
On Thursday March 26th just five days after the debate deal was brokered, a question and answer session will be broadcast by Channel 4 and Sky News. This will feature David Cameron (Conservative) and Ed Miliband (Labour) SEPARATELY talking to a studio audience. On April 2nd ITV will broadcast a seven party debate where ALL invited representatives will be present, including the Prime Minister. Taking part will be David Cameron (Conservative); Ed Miliband (Labour); Nick Clegg (Liberal); Nigel Farage (UKIP); Nicola Sturgeon (SNP-Scotland); Natalie Bennett (Green); Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru-Wales). The BBC will host a five party opposition debate on April 16th (excluding coalition partners Cameron and Clegg) and a special Question Time discussion on April 30th. The final programme will feature the Labour, Liberal and Conservative leaders, with the BBC reassuringly stating that other interested parties will have a presence of some kind to ensure fairness. I admit I found the “reassurance” statement utterly laughable to say the least.
Broadcasters should have had the debate format ironed out months ago and the whole negotiation process regarding the issue, has taken focus away from the actual election campaign “sucking the life out of it” to quote David Cameron. He has said in the past that these debates are essential to the political process in the UK, yet as Prime Minister has done nothing to ensure the smooth running of it. In fact his actions have only hindered the negotiations protracting them out far longer than was necessary. And the final debate format is a smorgasbord of discussions that strike me as being a shambolic farce for democracy. I say shambolic because the whole negotiating process has been a bit of a nightmarish joke where the idea of seven leaders trying to talk over each other makes me think of “squabbling simpering school kids”. Also, when one major group has been deliberately excluded from the debating forum it makes a mockery of the word democracy.
My British passport declares me a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Yet NOWHERE are the Northern Irish people represented in these debates, although their leaders have appealed to the BBC Trust against their exclusion to no avail. My initial research on the internet seems to suggest that David Cameron was initially keen that the DUP the biggest party in Northern Ireland be included. If this was the case however, the Prime Minister has had a distinct lapse of memory in recent weeks. It was the Green party he fought for inclusion in the end. The DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson heads eight MPs in the House of Commons the FOURTH biggest party representation in parliament. The Northern Irish contingent has more MPs than four of the parties invited to the debates. So WHY the hell is Northern Ireland being excluded I wonder?
It appears the BBC Trust has argued that the candidates in Northern Ireland elections do not have party representation in the remainder of the UK, and so should be excluded! Having never seen a Northern Ireland ballot paper I cannot comment on that, but if you can presume that the NI parties are vaguely aligned with the three mainstream UK party principles (left, centre, right for simplicity), then that argument is invalid. When you consider the SNP are only on Scottish ballots and Plaid Cymru on Welsh ballots the BBC Trusts stance becomes implausible. I can only think that there lurks a remnant of the old animosity toward Northern Ireland that stemmed from the troubles.
I’m disappointed that the leaders of the SNP and Plaid Cymru have not stuck up for their smaller national counterpart. I shake my head in disbelief when I hear “the British people want and need these debates” knowing that a small but significant cohort of my fellow British citizens are being DELIBERATELY EXCLUDED from the process. Considering the people of that region have far stronger feelings toward the Union flag (for and against) than many other parts of the UK, I find it shocking how easily Northern Ireland has been ignored for the election debates, and feel a lone voice in the wilderness.
A few short months ago I expressed the earnest hope that Scotland would not vote for independence but remain within the UK. I said “all for one and one for all”, yet this whole debate debacle has shown me that perhaps we are not as unified a democracy as people would like to think. It appears the Prime Minister can pull rank and manipulate the broadcasting media when it suits him. The media seem to have an underlying political agenda of their own despite the fact they are supposed to be neutral. And all those involved have colluded to exclude the Northern Ireland voice that has just as much right to be heard. Democracy…I think not, shame on you.