Monday, 15 March 2010

Debating the Debates: the Nationalist Standpoint

For these next general election Britain will be faced with yet another novel concept the rest of Europe has long gotten used to: televised electoral debates (a.k.a. ‘the absolute highlight of the whole electoral period’). Thus, BBC, ITV and Sky will be organizing a series of three electoral debates with the leaders of the main parties competing at these elections. And by main they seem to understand just Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats and this is where the nationalist parties of Scotland (SNP) and Wales (Plaid Cymru) have entered the scene and started the debate on the debate(s). Essentially one has to keep in mind one thing: this is not by any means a singular case. It’s quite common, in continental Europe for example, for television channels to throw down the glove to the main political leaders and when they accept it, a whole series of smaller political parties to question the whole system and to fight for representation within the debate. Yet, the devolved British system does present some peculiarities.

Going back to the issue at hand, both Plaid and the SNP have questioned the whole system of organisation of the debates, centring their critique on the lack of representation for their parties, which, if anything, do have seats in Parliament. The reply was swift, as David Cairns articulated it:

“In the UK parliament, which has got 650 seats, the SNP hold seven. In the UK parliament, the SNP are a fringe, minority party.”

Same thing with Plaid, who only hold 3 of the welsh seats. Moreover, inconspicuously, the name of the debates has been quietly changed from the “Leaders' Debates" to the "Prime Ministerial Debates". In this way, by redefining the rules of the game, the organisers left no room for any contestation from either Plaid or SNP on the simple reasoning that they would have no chance of having the Prime Minister, if not for anything else then for the simple fact that they are not standing in enough constituencies to create a majority. Nevertheless, a very bad argument because, if that’s the whole reasoning, why even have the Lib Dems? No offence towards the liberals, their only sin for me is that they have an election logo that reminds me of offers for crisps and not of serious politics, but they don’t stand any chance of actually getting a majority in the House of Commons. Even more, a bit of mathematical juggling has shown that, hypothetically, Plaid/SNP could actually get the PM position.

Lastly, the BBC has compromised and declared they will organise separate debates for all the devolved regions, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Thus, by having a nation-wide (British-wide?) debate followed by a series of smaller ones, including the contesting parties, in Wales, Scotland and NI, should make everyone happy. Or maybe not, because this whole system, is only to resembling of football, in forcing Plaid and the SNP to play in the Championship, when they already had qualified for the Premier League. This type of regional debate would seem appropriate if these were elections for regional assemblies, which they are not. It’s like asking these parties to go play with the small kids. (No wonder they are NOT happy!)

So, even as we can see the logic behind not having these ‘regional’ parties in the debate, in their very poor showing in comparison to the other parties, every other reason seems to point towards the ‘wrongness’ of the situation. And it’s not only the double standard in regard to Nick Clegg’s participation in the debate or the tiered system of regional debates, but so much more on a symbolical level. First, the fact that these parties are not recognised as actual contenders, that the electorate watching these debates will fail to see the nationalist (SNP’s and Plaid’s) stance on many issues and will be left with the general opinion that their future is decided in between the ‘Big 3’. Elin Jones, Plaid Cymru’s director of communications clearly argued that:

“They are being set up in a way that will mislead people into thinking that only the London parties are taking part in this election … in many of Wales’ constituencies one or two out of these London parties barely feature in the running – yet they will feature prominently in this London stitch-up.”

Concluding, one cannot be that naive to believe that a voter in Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch would actually watch the national debate and think: ‘Oh, I’ve got a general view, now I will watch the Welsh debate too to get a more in-depth image of what the parties think, because I’m one of those (second class?) citizens of Britain that need to watch two debates to actually understand what the contending parties have to offer in this election.’ True, that may be a bit of an extreme view on the situation, but I do believe it holds a certain degree of truth.

Secondly, the system strengthens the perception that Britain is, essentially, a 2 (and a half) party system, whereas at least on a regional level, the system is a multi-party one. Drawing from a previous post arguing that the rules of the game influence the way the game is played, the perception in regards to the game (that the Big 3 are the only ones with a chance) can also change the way the game is played/voting behaviour radically (by constructing a vote for any other party as a ‘wasted vote’). Thus, the whole ‘debate on the debate(s)’ is all about media coverage/airtime for the parties or, more specifically, about who is represented as a potential winner in these elections and isn’t, about who those who vote perceive as the ‘real’ candidates.

Lastly, the democracy facet of the debate: why not have an extra voice, if not to offer alternative solutions for the whole of Britain, then surely to presents criticisms to the Tories, Labour or Lib Dems. And, more importantly, why not have this voice represented given the possibility of a hung parliament in which a, predicted, collaboration in between the SNP and Plaid Cymru could influence policy or, even, shift the balance of power.

Concluding, why not have Ieuan Wyn Jones (Plaid) and Alex Salmond (SNP) in the debates? There are a couple more reasons to say no. The first one is that by allowing them in, any other party, like the Greens, UKIP or the BNP, should be able to participate; still, as long as the rule of the debate states that ‘any party who is represented in Parliament is allowed to take part in the debate’[1] (a rule similar to the German provision on state funding for parties who acquire a certain percent of the vote) this problem is solved. The only problem left then is the lack of chairs for the two extra people, in which case I’d be more than happy to contribute with the spare ones in my kitchen...

[1] It is on purpose that I’m avoiding any reference to Northern Ireland, as the party system there is radically different and further problematizes the idea that, what I’ve called, the Big 3 actually represent the whole of Britain.


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