Opinion: The proposed televised debate format does not help pluralism

So, there will be televised debates prior to the 2015 General Election. The question that beckons is what form they should take. ITV, Channel 4 and the BBC are all set to host the party leaders, each with a different composition. Channel 4 have invited Ed Miliband and David Cameron, the BBC have added Nick Clegg to the mix and the trio becomes four as Nigel Farage will attend the ITV debate.

The big controversy, of course, is ITV’s decision to invite UKIP to their debate, given they have only one MP. Personally, I absolutely support the move. As Liberal Democrats we support a pluralistic approach to politics that welcome many democratic voices. Furthermore, UKIP have been able to ride on a wave of press hype that been allowed to ferment exactly because they have been the outriders of traditional political debate.  By inviting them into the fold in televised debates we are able to call UKIP out on the flaws in their policy platform. We can paint ourselves as the antithesis of UKIP’s insular and nationalist philosophy and appeal to those voters that oppose this view. Ultimately, the inclusion of UKIP offers an opportunity to bring the party to account.

Yet, the exclusion of other parties demonstrates how inadequate the provision is for pluralistic politics. The number of UKIP MPs equals that of the Green Party, who have not been invited to any televised debate. Neither have the SNP and Plaid Cymru who have significantly more MPs than UKIP. If the reason for UKIP’s inclusion is that they could potentially hold the balance of power, then the same could be said of the SNP, who look likely to make big gains in May. If anything, the Channel 4 policy to include “two leaders who could become prime minister” does at least have an internal logic. However, it muscles out smaller parties and deprives them of the opportunity to convey their message.

Voters are increasingly moving in fragmented directions, rejecting a two party system. The televised debates should reflect the diversity of political thought within the country. Instead of entrenching an out-dated, binary opposite choice, it should embrace the breadth of choice. A minimum threshold of 5% in a recent national election would allow smaller parties equal opportunities. With greater devolution to the constituent parts of the UK regional debates, not necessarily just days before the election, would ensure notable national parties receive a voice. The mismatched compositions of these televised debates demonstrate how fledgling the format is, and an underlying unwillingness to adapt to pluralistic politics.

* Scott Stables is Secretary for Edinburgh North East and Leith Liberal Democrats and blogs at Slant and Sensibility

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  • matt (Bristol) 15th Oct '14 - 11:21am

    I agree with you, but we need to be honest that your criteria (if by national election you mean general election?)would allow the BNP a platform; a party that has imploded since that time.

  • “By inviting them into the fold in televised debates we are able to call UKIP out on the flaws in their policy platform”

    I think that’s what Clegg thought in his euro debates with Farage – how well did that work?

  • Malcolm Todd 15th Oct '14 - 12:28pm

    matt (Bristol)
    No, BNP have never got 5% of the vote in a general election — though they did get 6% in the 2009 Euro elections.

  • Malcolm Todd 15th Oct '14 - 12:31pm


    Indeed, the continuing ability of the Parties of Sanity to delude themselves that they have the intellectual ability to skewer Farage in debate is breath-taking. “He’s obviously wrong; so if we examine his views and show the people he’s wrong, they’ll stop voting for him.” Yes. That’s obviously how it works…

  • matt (Bristol) 15th Oct '14 - 12:58pm

    Malcolm Todd – I stand corrected; sorry. But the potential is there in future and we need to be honest about that, if we feel proportionality of the vote is the ultimate criteria for anything, from parliament to TV debates.

  • paul barker 15th Oct '14 - 3:41pm

    Clegg came up with a great slogan at Conference – We will break our tawdry Politics to let The People in. The People includes racists & those who dream of returning to some imaginary past, we have to talk to all of them. We are not going to demolish UKIP with a few debates, they are going to be around for decades.
    Scott Stables is right that The MSM dont yet get whats changed. The next PM will be leading a Coalition of fractious segments whether thats 1, 2 or 3 Parties & any new Government is going to have to make alliances to get its way.

  • Scott Stables 15th Oct '14 - 9:17pm

    @Malc, I take your point regarding the European debates. I think that failed because it played in to Farage’s strengths, Europe and immigration. When you have to consider issues regarding how you raise taxes, run public services and tackle big issues in society, I do feel there are pressing questions we can pose to Ukip. @Stephen W, I agree with your point regarding SNP, Plaid etc. I do not feel it is appropriate to put them in national debates, but it is important that parties who could be the biggest party in their country are given the opportunity to debate. To me, regional variants on the televised debate structure seems the most logical idea.

  • The Green Party has separate organisations in Scotland and England with a total of 3 leaders. Fair enough they believe Britain should cease to exist and Scotland should be independent but therefore they are not a national party. UKIP are a difficult case because they did poorly last time getting 3% and no MPs. However I think they should be included if they stand candidates everywhere, whereas last time they stood down in favour of anti european conservatives.

  • David Rogers 16th Oct '14 - 8:29am

    Absolutely agree with Stephen W above! Most of us in the UK have no opportunity to vote for regional (so called nationalist) parties, and so there is no point in including them in national (UK) broadcasts. But of course they should feature in whatever the BBC and other broadcasters do in those parts of the UK. On a related point, why does the BBC have a dedicated HD channel for Scottish local news (e.g. after the News at Six), whereas in the region where I live – which has a population larger than that of Scotland and Wales combined – we are currently denied this?
    I thought we all paid the same licence fee……..so there’s an example of subsidy, political correctness, or favouritism!

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