Comment: All in, I win - Cameron’s TV strategy

David Cameron may well benefit from a televisual cacophony of splenetic sectional interests. Picture: AFP/Getty

David Cameron may well benefit from a televisual cacophony of splenetic sectional interests. Picture: AFP/Getty

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THE PM is right to insist the Greens join the television election debates, but you can be sure he has an agenda, says Bill Jamieson

Self-interested he may be. “Frit” quite possibly. And desperate to block further media coverage for Nigel Farage and Ukip, almost certainly. But for wider reasons of national interest, David Cameron is right to insist that the Green Party should be included in any TV election debates.

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This has earned him no favours, of course, either from the broadcasters or from other party leaders. In an unlikely alliance this week, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage have teamed up to write identical letters of protest to the Prime Minister and threaten an “empty chair” should the TV debates proceed without him.

If Cameron is open to the charge of self-interest, so, too, surely, are Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, who have no interest in giving a TV debate voice to the Greens – a party likely to pinch votes from them.

Latest membership figures for the Greens add fuel to the argument for their inclusion. Adam Ramsay on the Open Democracy website claims this week that, at 40,879, the party’s membership is within a whisker of Ukip’s membership of 41,614. And for the record, he expects the SNP to announce that it will pass the 100,000 membership mark in the not too distant future.

Meanwhile, the SNP and Plaid Cymru, who have more seats in Parliament than either Ukip or the Green Party, also say they should be represented in any series of debates.

Now membership figures are not by themselves a basis for TV debate inclusion. But they underscore a critical point for broadcasters: that what lies ahead is a multi-party
election campaign reflecting widespread voter dissatisfaction with the mainstream parties and what they have to offer: a point powerfully reinforced by last year’s European and UK by-election results.

Far from helping to calm matters, Ofcom has walked into a minefield. It has sought to differentiate parties on the basis of who are, and who are not, “major UK parties”. It declares that Ukip is “not a major party outside England and Wales”. And the SNP and Plaid Cymru are immediately put beyond the pale as these, too, are not “major UK parties” and are not fielding candidates in England.

But on this basis, who is and who is not a major UK party? As James Kelly points out on the 
pro-independence blog “Scot Goes Pop”, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have no major party status in Northern Ireland. Ukip has no major status in Scotland, and SNP and Plaid no major status in England.

Unscramble this almighty guddle if you can. The immediate danger is that we end up with TV election debates that feature parties that are prominent only in England and who are the favourites for media attention in the metropolitan bubble: self-regarding, self-perpetuating – and unacceptable.

A convenient contrivance is to hold separate debates for BBC and ITV viewers in Scotland and Wales. But this creates problems of its own and on several grounds. First, it diminishes the status of what is after all a general election to the UK parliament and the importance of issues such as security, defence, foreign affairs and of course “Europe”. These need to be discussed UK-wide.

Second, it leaves voters in the rest of the UK effectively blind as to who the potential coalition partners might be in the event of a hung parliament: what they stand for and what their terms and conditions for coalition support might be. If the SNP has ruled out any deal with the Conservatives, should voters not reasonably expect a little more detail on an Ed Miliband premiership made possible by SNP confidence and supply?

Arguably the greatest objection to the contrivance of localised debates is that they would not reflect across the UK the full character and scale of the change in political culture that has unfolded in recent years.

Whatever our individual opinion of this change, there is no denying the phenomenon: a widespread disaffection with the traditional two (or three) party system, a distrust of politicians and an evident rise in support for minority parties that is greater than the sum of its parts.

The reality is that UK politics has changed and is continuing to change. And a TV debate “solution” that works to downplay this and minimise or exclude minority parties would signally fail to reflect this transformation in national mood.

Indeed, the “big story” of this election is the extent of the historical decline in the two-party system. A retreat back into “same old”, with TV debates dominated by the main parties, would quite miss the key challenge that these parties now face. Both Ofcom and the Electoral Commission have to beware of the trap in front of them: that in screening out minority parties, they miss this greater elephant in the room.

So what might be David Cameron’s ulterior motive for his insistence that the Greens should be represented? There is an argument on the Conservative Right that the more parties are represented in these live TV debates, the greater the cacophony of strident and sectional interest that will be laid bare. And the more raucous and splenetic this display, the greater the recoil of voters from the prospect of a parliament trapped in a fractious gridlock.

The Conservative leader need only to confine himself to as few interventions as possible to convey the impression that only he offers a moderate and reassuring way out of this feuding, fissiparous morass. Greens, Ukip, SNP, Lib Dems: bring them on – all of them.

For the broadcaster, of course, this presents huge practical difficulties. Moderating a two or three party debate to ensure a fair hearing for each is demanding enough. When the stage includes four or five contenders desperate to get their sound bites in, the task becomes a nightmare. Pity the broadcaster who has to arrange this clash of competing voices and the “moderator” (sic) who has to keep order. Meanwhile the audience, as the independence referendum debates vividly showed, can intensify the adversarial atmosphere with partisan noise and interventions.

All this has the potential to backfire spectacularly, with millions of TV viewers repelled by the spectacle of the UK heading towards a raucous state of ungovernability. Flirting with a minority grievance is one thing. Voting the country into a state of multi-dimensional civil war quite another.

That is why, in David Cameron’s insistence on “all or nothing”, only two victors are likely to emerge: the “C” movies on Netflix as viewers desperately switch over to escape the noise – and the calm, moderate, above-it-all persona of He Who Shouts Least – Prime Minister David Cameron.

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