Saturday, 20 March 2010

How many horses does it take to make a debate?

You may have noticed that lately Plaid Cymru and the SNP have been getting on their high horses over their lack of inclusion over the upcoming, and widely anticipated, live debates. Expressing their combined anger in a series of joint letters claiming that the live debates could "endanger the conduct of a free election", accusing, in particular, the BBC for allowing itself to be "politically compromised". Obviously, in defence of the two parties they continue to show a level of co-operation which we rarely, if ever, see amongst their larger counterparts. Sadly they continue to fail to recognise the fact that the British elections are, by most accounts, a two horse race (two and a half apparently, but half a horse? I don't think so) regardless of these debates. I fail to see how their inclusion would alter this, a two and a two half horse race? If the Lib Dems are half a horse then the nationalists are barely a hind!

It is widely acknowledged that the Liberal Democrats have the most to gain from these debates. I mean people might even begin to differentiate Nick Clegg from Joe Anyone and see them as a real alternative. Let's face it though; they've a lot to gain from this, but not government. Meanwhile whilst the Lib Dems are getting a boost from being included in these debates Plaid Cymru and SNP are getting one for their absence. Their united front creates quite a contrast to the tittle-tattle mud-slinging of the Labour and Conservative parties. Their determination to stand up for what they believe in and create a great big fuss, aimed not at the three included parties but at the networks themselves, has given them an air of action over bickering. I fail to see how they would have kept themselves so in the limelight were they included in the debates.

Unsurprisingly, despite their moaning Plaid Cymru and SNP are still excluded from the televised debates, and rightly so. If they really want to complain about party coverage they should start from the top and look at the coverage that each party currently gets in the media. They'd quickly find that actually the news itself is largely irrelevant. Whatever story makes the voting public feel more cheated seems to be the present theme, basically whatever grabs the headlines. More importantly is the fact that the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties are absolute priority, with the exception of occasional outrageous behaviour by one of the more 'divisive' parties, any BNP story is an excellent example of this. The point is that the media has its own agenda and it could hardly be said that the televised debates are unreflective of this.

Naturally, since the nationalists started protesting the debates have been slightly altered, now they are 'Prime Ministerial' debates, excluding (legitimately...) the 'Leaders' ('Leader Debates') of any party who would statistically be unable to become Prime Minister. This includes Plaid Cymru and the SNP, even if they were to be combined.

This whole debacle has seen to (barely) overshadow what is actually a rather exciting concept. We get to see the potential leaders of our country answering questions from the public live on television. We even get to email questions in if we want to, a technofest! Despite all this these debates won't be perfect, like anything the format will require perfecting but in a time when people have been led to believe that everyone and their uncle is lying or cheating them (expenses rows, union strikes, party funding, Iraq inquiry). A live debate might go some way into redeeming some faith and some (at least temporarily) perceived honesty from our politicians. We should refrain from allowing ourselves to be distracted from the importance of these debates regardless of the ongoing and inevitable debates surrounding them. As for Plaid Cymru and the SNP, I'd say that for now three's a crowd.


  1. Fabulous horse analogy. I agree, the Dartmoor ponies shouldn't be racing the Thoroughbreds.

  2. Great post! It makes no sense whatsoever to include political parties who campaign on regional principles. The BBC is a broadcaster for the whole of Britain, they have regional arms, so the SNP and Plaid Cymru should have their own regional debates with leaders of all the parties competing in that region. Also, I love the idea of Alex Salmond being likened to a horse's hind!

  3. True, maybe it doesn’t make a lot of sense for the person living in Plymouth to see both the SNP and Plaid Cymru (though I do believe that their critique of the main parties may be relevant), but is it fair for the person in Aberdeen to see the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems four times and the SNP only once? I rather think not… Moreover, how would a (nationalist) voter in one of the ten constituencies represented by nationalist parties (three in Wales and seven in Scotland) feel in front of a debate in which there is no representative for ‘the horse hind’ he elected and that represents him in Westminster. Maybe having different debates for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would solve that problem, but they would problematise the whole issue of an United Kingdom.

    Concluding, I am reticent to choose a side or solution in the situation, largely because I believe there isn’t one; but, even so, I think we should take into consideration both pros and cons to the whole issue, and each party’s stance, because if anything, they all have democratically elected representatives in Parliament. And, in the end, maybe we shouldn’t forget that the two (and, debatably, a half) party system and the lack of cooperation in Parliament (that, in my opinion, may lead to disastrous effects in the situation of a hung Parliament) is sustained by our image of it and, indirectly, by the structure of this debates. Whether having this system or not is truly beneficial I leave to you to decide ...

    Lastly, one point I agree with wholeheartedly: Plaid Cymru and the SNP have done a brilliant job of making the headlines through this anti-debate campaign. Thumbs up to them!

  4. It does make sense for the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish to watch UK leaders four times because of the sheer influence Westminster has over their daily lives. Incomparable to that of regional party leaders. Besides, I'm sure most of these are proficient with a remote control. They are entitled to use it!

  5. Then, what's the point in even letting the regional parties compete in the elections, since they have no influence over the daily lives of people across the UK?

    Or in other words: I strongly believe there is more to democracy than a dictatorship of the majority. But it's just my opinion...

  6. Adina, I said it was "Incomparable to that of regional party leaders" not that they have none. Life isn't just option of extremities, it's a series of shades of grey. You just need to be realistic about this. These regions have devolved power in the form of the Welsh & Northern Irish Assemblies and the Scottish Parliament. So it's ridiculous to say they have no influence. Just look at policies implemented by Plaid & the SNP regarding HE funding for Scots and Welsh students who choose to stay in their homelands.

    In the context of our party system the debates are framed perfectly. If however, your problem is that there are only two and a half horses hoofing each other each week in parliament and you want more, then post up a new blog encouraging electoral reform...simples.

  7. Mea culpa, the 'none' was a miss-type, I was meaning to quote you.
    And since we seem to have agreed on the fact that nationalist parties can make a difference at the regional level, I do believe we are back to the drawing board with two essential arguments:
    1. Should these parties just stick to their respective assemblies (where they can implement changes), because as a minority they cannot make a difference in Westmister (in which case this debate format is entirely legitimate)?
    2.If they can make a difference in London, for their own people in Wales/Scotland and maybe for others because there is more to their agendas than antionalist politics, then why are they not in the debates?

    I don't want to start a serious argument on the issue, because it really isn't that relevant or solvable (more like intellectual masturbation), but I do believe we are standing on opposing sides of the fence in regards to the assumptions for the discussion. More precisely, I'm a fan of the second position (see questions above) whereas most rational people choose the first. Which is why we don't and we won't get along on the issue... (good conversation though).

    I'm off to research electoral reform now!

  8. Well, talk about debates...! I do agree that you raise some interesting points however I stand by my argument. Whilst I appreciate the regional concerns the BBC have said that “there will be separate debates held in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland among all the main parties, which will be broadcast on BBC Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and across the UK on the BBC News Channel”. I think that it’s important to remember that people vote as a United Kingdom and that 87% of the overall population of the UK is within England. Voter turnout is approximately 61-63% across the board. With this in mind the last elections had the following outcome, Labour 349 seats, Conservative 349 and Liberal Democrat 63. Plaid Cymru and the SNP had 10 seats between them. Were the audience at these debates reflective of the United Kingdom’s voting public then, as an example, an audience of 100 would contain 86 English people, 9 Scottish people and 5 Welsh.

    On top of this I think we need to bear in mind the purpose of these debates. This isn’t comparable to the argument as to whether or not the BNP leader Nick Griffin should be allowed on Question Time, it’s a national debate on the future leader of the country. Bearing in mind the previous statistical ambush I provided I think that it’s a given that Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem leaders are the focus. I’m not quite sure of the format of the debate yet however with a representative audience of the countries voters the interest in national parties would, I think, be limited due to the fact they aren’t going to be winning the Prime Ministers position any time soon. I think in order for the majority of the public to get what they want out of these debates then having the top three leadership prospects is the best option, particularly given the allocated 85-90 minutes for these debates. Especially considering that the gulf between these parties and the rest of the pack is so wide.

    Equally I feel that the BBC has been reasonable in its handling of these debates. It has even stated that “following the prime ministerial debates, all political parties which have significant levels of support at a national level will be offered opportunities across BBC output to respond to the issues raised in the debate”. Which I think is over and above what should really have been expected from the smaller parties.

    I think it is also safe to say that the broadcasters made an error in initially calling these debates ‘Leaders Debates’ rather than ‘Prime Ministerial’ Debates. There’s a lot in a name and it has given room for much unnecessary debate.

  9. Kayleigh, brilliant point and I do agree (I'm a sucker for numbers).
    But, to quote you 'the majority of the public [...] get what they want out of these debates', which means not all of them and, through this, the nationalist parties are to a certain extent legitimate in their request even as they represent a minority (which in certain constituencies may be a relative/absolute majority). That was my main point, not necessarily that we should have Plaid Cymru and the SNP represented, but that they do have a logical point in asking for this type of representation.
    Nevertheless, I admit to being mildly biased, because I do believe that given the mediatic ooportunity (and a PR system) the nationalists may be able to make a difference (and because my political experience has taught me that parties can rise and fall in a matter of decades, which doesn't fit very well with the British model).