The BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4 will be holding
three four debates before the general election in May 2015.
One of them, reasonably enough, will be a head-to-head between David Cameron and Ed Miliband.
Another two, also reasonably enough, will include besides the Conservative Prime Minister and the leader of the Labour Party (still predicted to be Labour Prime Minister by a narrow majority), the Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the LibDems, Nick Clegg – even though the LibDems appear likely to see their 57 seats drop to 18 after 7th May 2015.
The fourth debate will privilege a minor party above the SNP and the Greens: Nigel Farage, who is not an MP, whose party is still predicted to have no MPs after 7th May 2015, will get to take part in a four-way debate with Cameron, Miliband, and Clegg.
As of 9th October, thanks to Douglas Carswell’s defection from the Tory party, UKIP has one MP. In the House of Lords, UKIP has three peers, the Lord Pearson of Rannoch, Lord Willoughby de Broke, and the Lord Stevens of Ludgate – all former Conservative peers who defected to UKIP. UKIP also have 24 MEPs – won by election with a 34.17% turnout – 370 local councillors, and 48,623 members. They have no representation in the Scottish Parliament, in the Welsh Assembly, nor in the London Assembly, and in the Northern Ireland Assembly they have only one MLA: a defector from the Ulster Unionist Party. he did not stand as a UKIP MLA.
Why are these TV channels privileging UKIP above the SNP or the Green Party? The BBC, of course, has a long-standing habit of doing so.
The SNP has 6 MPs. After 7th May 2015, they are likely to have 22. They have 421 local councillors, 65 MSPs, and 80,000 members. They have more members than the LibDems or UKIP: more MPs than UKIP (and by seats won honestly, not by mid-term defection), numerically more local councillors than UKIP and proportionally more local councillors in Scotland than the LibDems have across the UK. They are by membership the third-largest party in the UK, with 80,000 members.
The Green Party of England and Wales (and the Scottish Greens and the Green Party in Northern Ireland) are three parties, but between them they have: one MP – properly elected in May 2010 – one peer (not a defector like UKIP’s three: Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb was chosen to become a life peer by the Green Party in a ballot of all members), and two MSPs and one MLA. The Green Party of England and Wales has three MEPs, two London Assembly members, and 170 local councillors – in total, across the UK, the three Green parties have 188 councillors, numerically fewer than UKIPs, but in other respects, they clearly have far more representation, and more fairly elected representation. They also have over 27,000 members.
If UKIP is being included in the leaders debate, the Green Parties of the UK merit inclusion too.
If the BBC is only including leaders currently in government or likely to be in government after 7th May 2015, the SNP deserves to be in two debates more than the LibDems do.
To include only Nigel Farage, and not Nicola Sturgeon or Natalie Bennett, gives two messages from the BBC:
One is, that they are determined to promote UKIP as if it were a serious political party, while ignoring the SNP, which has much larger support and more representation at Westminster, both now and after 7th May: and also ignoring the Green Party, which has much broader support and more democratic representation at Westminster and elsewhere.
The other message is that the BBC sees leaders debates as events for men in suits, not for mere women who happen to lead political parties in the UK. To have two, three, or four men standing at podiums discussing politics is clearly what the BBC see as natural debate: to include one or two women is apparently unthinkable, no matter how many MPs their party has now or will have after 7th May.
You can and you should complain to the BBC about this.
Update: you can also complain to ITV, the channel staging the UKIP-inclusion debate, referencing Section Five: Due Impartiality and Due Accuracy and Undue Prominence of Views and Opinions, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org (or phoning or writing). If ITV fail to remedy their privileging UKIP above the other parties, they can be reported to OfCom (you must complain to ITV first – OfCom can take no action unless you have already given the company a fair chance to make things right).
Response from the BBC, in full:
Thank you for contacting us about the proposed format for the 2015 General Election debates. We have received a wide range of feedback from supporters of different political parties across the UK. In order to use our TV licence fee resources efficiently, this response aims to answer the key concerns, but we apologise in advance if it doesn’t address your specific points in the manner you would prefer.
The BBC is working with other broadcasters to try and make election debates happen in 2015 and we believe we have set out a fair and realistic formula. Twenty two million people saw some of the debates in 2010. They were very successful in engaging the electorate, especially first time voters and the broadcasters would like them to happen again at next year’s general election. We are also putting forward our own proposals for other debates across the UK.
Ensuring impartiality during an election campaign is a priority and judgements about debates, and other programmes, are taken on the basis of objective editorial assessments of a number of factors, including the levels of past and current electoral support for each party.
Although UKIP did not win a seat in the 2010 general election, they polled more than three times as many votes as the Green Party, which did win a seat. In the 2014 European elections, UKIP topped the poll, beating all the Westminster parties in terms of seats (24) and share of the vote (more than 27% – up more than 10% on 2009). The Greens won three seats in the European election, with just under 8% of the vote (a small drop since 2009).
UKIP have also performed strongly in local government elections in England for the past two years and have more councillors than the Greens. Before their victory in Clacton, UKIP had come second in every Westminster by-election for the last two years – the Greens’ best performance was around 4%.
We also take account of opinion polls, when there is a robust and consistent trend: UKIP have been regularly polling in the mid-teens for more than two years, well ahead, for instance, of the Liberal Democrats and around 10 percentage points ahead of the Greens.
In Scotland, the BBC is proposing a debate, in peak time on BBC One, involving the leaders of the SNP, Scottish Labour, the Scottish Conservative and Scottish Liberal Democrat parties. We are proposing a similar format of debate on BBC One from Wales, involving the leaders of Plaid Cymru, Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP. We have written to the parties to begin discussions about our proposals and we will ensure impartiality during the Election in Scotland and Wales. Full details of our content will be released over the coming months once they are finalised.
In my view this amounts to: We’ve been ignoring the Greens for years and we’re not going to start paying attention to them now. UKIP are jolly popular and we want that chap Farage on our show. We’re just going to ignore your valid point about the SNP having more representation and polling higher than UKIP because we don’t want to consider how many MPs they’re likely to have after 7th May.
See also: Why the Green Party should be in the TV election debates by Willard Foxton.
See also Alex Andreou:
“However, the exclusion of parties such as the Greens, the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru has another deeper effect. It excludes anyone who could lend a modicum of diversity to these debates; who might challenge the status quo on the environment, on devolution, on constitutional change, on free-market economics, on gender politics. What we have ended up with – again – is a platform of two, three or four rich, privileged, white, straight, middle-aged, male, career politicians from a tiny part of south-east England telling the rest of the country what is what.”