We’ve all heard of (if not been geeky enough to watch) the U.S. Presidential debates, in particular how important the first one was in giving Mitt Romney momentum in the polls. As if on cue, the Guardian published an article recently which explains how politicians and news organisations are arguing (three years in advance) about our own version of those debates – the 2015 Prime Ministerial debates. So here are some ideas from me about how those should go.
First off, some background. As a keen follower of minor parties, being in one myself, I’ve been following the demands in the U.S. from Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, and Gary Johnson, the Libertarian, to be allowed into the Presidential debates. Their demands are not unreasonable – not only do the two of them both have ballot access reaching 85% of the American voters, but they represent areas of the American political landscape that the voters deserve to hear. I think the US Libertarian Party has a completely unrealistic and in some ways dangerous economic policy, but their social policies are, not surprisingly, libertarian. And when it comes to Mitt Romney threatening to overturn Roe V. Wade, the more voices saying that government should stay away from women’s bodies, the better.
And it goes without saying that I think that Jill Stein should be allowed to spread her message of environmentalism and social justice.
But, as you probably know, they haven’t been in the debates (Stein was in fact arrested for trying to gain ‘unauthorised’ access to the debate hall during the second debate). This is because the Commission on Presidential Debates, which is run jointly by Republicans and Democrats, laid down after the 1990s that candidates must attain 15% of the vote in a succession of national polls to be allowed into the debates.
Why this rule? If you were a cynical person, which I most certainly am, you’d say that after Ross Perot drew 18% of the vote in 1992 and upset both parties (by helping Bush lose and keeping Clinton below 50% of the vote) the two major parties were keen to keep third parties out of the debates for a very simple reason: naked self-interest. It’s quite common that, given a choice between three political options, a large number of people will plump for the one in the middle. That’s probably why Nick Clegg did so well in the debates in 2010. Candidates prefer having only one opponent: it’s easier to simply attack them and define yourself as ‘not Romney’ or ‘not Obama’. But when you have a third party candidate in the debate with you, it’s not so easy to do this.
Britain’s political landscape is, as we know, somewhat different. In the USA, excluding Perot and Nader, third party candidates don’t tend to exceed less than 1% of the national vote. In contrast, the UK has a relatively stronger tradition of multi-party representation in Parliament, which has grown more pronounced in the last 30 years. Obviously the Liberal Democrats fall into this third party category, but the impact of nationalist parties, the Green Party, RESPECT and UKIP is also growing.
And so we come to the debates. In 2010, we were treated to a wider variety of options than Americans were treated to in their debates, but we still saw a basic political consensus. The environment was considered almost a second-term matter, capitalism was accepted unquestioningly and (although they did not reveal it to the voters) all three party leaders agreed that savage cuts would need to be made.
Unless we make a clear argument for change, we will have that again in 2015, and it will be worse for the voters. Despite clear evidence that austerity is failing to reduce the deficit or provide a boost to the economy, the three main parties are committed to it and if dissenting voices are shut out from the debates, the public discourse will be harmed. It will appear to the voters as if no-one objects to austerity, when in reality a large number of economists and experts do: including U.S. President Barack Obama.
So I would propose an alternative to the cosy stitch-ups that we see in American debates and which may occur here too. Let’s let a wider range of voices into those debates.
Quite obviously, not every single political party in the UK should send a representative to the debates. For one thing, the nationalist parties only contest one nation of the UK, and like last time those nations will have their own debates with the SNP and Plaid included. For another thing, the tiny parties like the BNP or Socialist Labour Party have no prospect of forming a government as shown by the fact that they have no MPs.
But there are, I believe, reasonable criteria that can be laid down. Personally I think this should not be an arbitrary guideline as in America, but be consistent with other areas of our democratic structures. For example, the party funding proposals put forward by a Parliamentary committee proposed that public funding should be offered to parties that have a representative in the devolved assemblies and an MP. We could take this criteria for the debates; this would allow the Green party’s leader, Natalie Bennett, to stand alongside Clegg, Cameron and Milliband. It would not allow the RESPECT party into the debates as George Galloway’s victory does not reflect widespread national support, as shown by their lack of representation in London, Scotland or Wales. In contrast the Greens have two London AMs and their Scottish cousins have two MSPs.
However, this is still a limited proposal – it only offers one additional voice and will in any event be dependent upon past voting, rather than voting intention. We could instead take as our basis that any party which has an MP or scores above 5% in a number of national polls (taking as our benchmark the level at which candidates save their deposits) will be allowed in. This would allow public opinion near the election to sway the result, rather than being dependent upon how they voted in the last devolved and general elections. This would most likely see UKIP and the Green Party represented, but also any party that arises nearer 2015 and gathers public support.
In any event, neither of these proposals are unlikely to happen. As in America the three main parties will control the composition of the debates and the media organisations who host them would probably prefer the simplicity of reporting on two or three parties, and not four or five.
But they should happen. I’ve written before about how I believe liberal democracy to be a flawed and unrepresentative process. But there will be a general election in 2015, and the British voter deserves a wider choice in that election than three shades of blue. They deserve a genuine debate about the economy, climate change, civil liberties, austerity, Europe and democratic reform – and the three main parties have very little difference between them on most issues.
Back during the London Mayoral election, I argued that neither Siobhan Benita, the independent, nor Lawrence Webb, the UKIP candidate, should be allowed into the debates. I have changed my mind.
In a liberal democracy, the people vote for representatives – and however flawed that system is, they deserve to know that they have a wider choice for those representatives than blue, yellow or red.