Inclusive leader debates aren’t ‘messy,’ they’re democratic

Yesterday it was announced that the UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, would be invited to join David Cameron (Conservatives), Ed Miliband (Labour) and Nick Clegg (Lib Dems) in the party leaders debates, broadcast ahead of next year’s general election. UKIP having only won its first parliamentary seat last Thursday, it’s not surprising that there’s been a great deal of outrage in response.

Two main forms of criticism emerge: one is that the debate shouldn’t include Farage or Clegg, but that it should be a head-to-head with Cameron and Miliband, the only two leaders who are likely to be leading the winning party after next year’s election. The second line of reasoning is that if the media extends a hand to Farage, it should extend that same hand to all of the other parties which have sitting MPs in the House of Commons (or by another set of clearly defined criteria).

Although the first critique has some merit, given that the UK is a prime ministerial system and the head of government is elected only indirectly, the argument loses some of its punch. By including the other party leaders in the debate, it serves to better inform the voting public of the varying party stances on key issues. Keeping the debate to Cameron and Miliband only strengthens the position of the two biggest parties and perpetuates the image that the establishment elite act in their own interests, rather than in those of the wider public or in the name of democracy. The Conservatives and Labour would be the main beneficiaries from this scenario, with the other parties and citizens losing out from the opportunity to lower the missing information hurdle involved in decision-making. Furthermore, given that the 2010 elections resulted in a coalition and it doesn’t look as though any party will likely have a majority next year, the prospect of another coalition is not unthinkable. Given that the Tories and Labour are each polling around 30 per cent, that leaves 40 per cent of the public either undecided or looking elsewhere to express their political voice. Moreover, as UKIP showed last week, and the Greens showed in 2010, a small party can still get around the huge disadvantage of First Past The Post and should not be dismissed as an irrelevant voice in the country’s political debate.

I therefore tend to agree with the second line of reasoning. If televised leadership debates are a part of this democracy, there should be consistently applied rules that determine which party leaders are allowed to participate. In Canada, for example, a party must have at least one sitting MP and have at least 5 per cent of voter support in the popular polls. This seems fair. As SNP MP Angus Robertson attested, “The broadcasters have the cheek to say that their proposed format factors in ‘changes in the political landscape’ to justify including UKIP.” Where is the objectivity in what counts as ‘changes in the political landscape?’ Does the recent tide in SNP support following the Scottish referendum not count? The Greens beat the Lib Dems in the 2014 European elections and are neck-and-neck in opinion polls. Does that not count either? What about the fact that Caroline Lucas has been a Green MP for four years now, whereas UKIP has had one for five days? There is no objective reasoning to the decision made that Farage can be included, yet the Greens and the SNP can’t.

The other argument put forth by some of the media is that a debate between too many leaders can be ‘messy.’ In other European countries, leader debates often have six or more leaders taking part. For example, leading up to Sweden’s elections last month, eight party leader debates were broadcast with eight leaders at each. Ahead of Denmark’s 2011 election, leaders of the six main parties were involved in debates. (For those who watched Borgen, you may have even seen the fictional version of this in action). Including a plurality of voices in democratic debate isn’t ‘messy’; it’s part of a healthy democracy.

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