What are the leaders’ debates for?
Because the UK is run by representatives from elected from constituencies, most of us watching a leaders’ debate will never get to vote for the party leader we think made best showing, or whose views we most agree with.
The current plan for the leaders’ debates – one on the BBC, one on Channel 4, and one on ITV – is for them to include the four men who lead four parties in the UK – the Conservatives, Labour, the LibDems, and UKIP: but exclude the women who lead the Green Party, the SNP, and Plaid Cymru.
In 2010, three leaders’ debates were for the three men who led what would obviously be the three biggest parties in the next Parliament, and in the sense that we saw David Cameron and Nick Clegg bonding as the two younger, public school men, excluding Gordon Brown, they were illuminating – even if Nick Clegg managed to parlay his brief popularity into a five-year crash for his party.
Shouldn’t leaders’ debates be about letting the general public see what the leaders of parties who will have an impact on public policy after the next general election have to say for themselves?
We don’t know what the outcome of the May 2015 general election is going to be, but we do know some likely outcomes for after May 2015:
- Labour is likely to be the single biggest party at Westminster (but may not have the majority, and certainly won’t have the kind of thumping majority Labour won in 1997).
- Conservatives likely to be the second-biggest party at Westminster, and very unlikely to have a majority or even have enough seats that they can get a coalition together with either the LibDems or the Democratic Unionists.
So, whoever else is in the leaders’ debates, it makes sense for David Cameron and Ed Miliband to be there.
And though the LibDems look likely to lose at least half their MPs in May 2015, they may well still have enough to make them the third party in Westminster – and Nick Clegg is the deputy Prime Minister. So, for at least one debate, it makes sense for Nick Clegg to be there.
There are 10 parties besides Labour and the Tories and the LibDems in the House of Commons: the DUP (NI, 8), the SNP (6), the Sinn Fein (NI, 5), Plaid Cymru (3), the SDLP (NI, 3), the Alliance (NI, 1), the Green Party (1), Respect (1), and UKIP (1).
“Respect” is not so much a party as a means of George Galloway getting to egoise, so we can leave that out.
I regret to say that I do not think at least three out of four of the Northern Irish parties need to be represented: Sinn Fein, the SDLP, and the Alliance, are all very NI-focussed to the exclusion of outside politics (is my impression), and Sinn Fein MPs by policy don’t even sit in the Commons. But it’s arguable that the DUP has in the past and might in the future provide the Conservative Party with enough support to keep them in government: should Peter Robinson be at one of the leaders’ debates?
It appears Labour have decided to encourage Tory defectors to UKIP (or something like that) by not campaigning for a Labour win in Rochester and Strood, which means there’s a fair chance UKIP will double its MPs shortly with a second Conservative defector. Does this give Nigel Farage twice the right to claim a place in the leaders’ debate?
(I should think that Labour would like that, which may be one of their reasons for not bothering with Rochester and Strood. Ed Miliband may not make the best showing, but in a leaders’ debate that includes Nigel Farage, Miliband can hardly fail to remind voters that the choice is “Labour – or UKIP/Conservatives”. “We’re Not As Bad As Those Guys” is a shameful way for Labour to have to campaign, but if it’s all they’ve got left, they might as well use it.)
If UKIP with two MPs can claim Nigel Farage should be in the leaders’ debates, certainly Plaid Cymru with three MPs could be. UKIP’s talk of excluding the UK from the EU: Plaid Cymru talks of the devolved governments of Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland having input into decisions made at Westminster level that impact on the devolved governance. So include in Leanne Wood in at least one.
The Green Party has only one MP, but the Green parties of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, have elected representatives all over the UK – which is more than UKIP can claim. The Green parties have seen a surge in membership and an increase in MEPs: they are, at the moment, certainly more popular than the LibDems. So, include in Natalie Bennett.
The SNP is likely to be the third-largest party in Westminster at the next election, and the main reason Labour won’t have an overall majority. This is not because of a sudden resurgence in nationalism, but because the SNP has drifted left in order to oppose the Tories, and Labour has drifted rightwards. If the SNP have more MPs at Westminster than the LibDems, and Labour needs a coalition or confidence-and-supply arrangement to form a government, then Labour would need to look to the SNP, not to the LibDems.
For Nicola Sturgeon to take part in the leaders’ debates seems essential: how else are people in England to be informed and educated about the party that may be in coalition government with Labour after May 2015? Would Labour be able to use the excuse that the SNP are all about nationalism and nothing else to reject a coalition with the third-largest party and give in to the LibDems, even if they have fewer MPs and are less popular?
But those arguing that a mass debate panel with all the party leaders would be impossible to stage do have a fair point. Everyone with a claim to be represented can’t be part of the leaders’ debates at the same time.
So, here’s my proposal for the leaders’ debates.
- BBC: David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nicola Sturgeon, Nick Clegg.
- ITV: David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Peter Robinson, Nigel Farage, Leanne Wood.
- Channel 4: David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett.
BBC: the four politicians who will lead the four largest parties in the House of Commons after May 2015.
ITV: Cameron and Miliband and the three leaders of three minor parties who won’t be in government but who may still have impact on policy.
Channel 4: Cameron and Miliband and the two leaders of the two parties with widest influence and fastest-growing membership.