Primus inter pares

I do not like the debates between the party leaders. The concept of first amongst equals is diminished in my view with the advent of these spectacles. These debates reduce a contest in 650 distinct and separate constituencies to a beauty pageant between three, four, or more, leaders of the main political parties.

I am often pointing out that the contest in Southend West will be between (Sir) David Amess and me (and whoever else is selected amongst the other parties). Neither David Cameron nor Ed Miliband will feature on the ballot paper.

I do not see this as enhancing our democracy. The leaders’ debates introduce a presidential element to the General Election, and if the contest is whittled down to who of the party leaders comes across best then the role of backbench MPs across the House of Commons starts to dwindle.

I realise that it is national issues that largely decide the outcome in each constituency, yet I hope that my efforts, and those of other candidates, have some bearing.

I doubt that these debates will go away, though. I sense that I am in a minority in being alarmed at seeing a whole campaign reduced to three one-hour slots (or whatever format is agreed upon this time). How long before our leaders are selected only for their ability to look good on camera, irrespective of their abilities to lead debate, set policy, or argue cogently?

There is a chance that the debates will be scrapped, although this unlikely. The Prime Minister is setting a precondition for his attendance; and the riposte from his opponents is the suggested empty chair solution.

I am not one to take David Cameron’s side normally, but I think he has a point about the inclusion of Natalie Bennett (Green Party leader). If we must have leaders’ debates then all who lead parties that genuinely seek to form a Government should be included. The simplest test of this is whether they are planning to field 326 or more candidates. 326 MPs is the minimum required to form a majority Government.

In 2010 six parties fielded more than 325 candidates: Conservative (631), Labour (631), Liberal Democrat (631), UKIP (558), BNP (338), Green (334).

The BNP will not feature beyond the fringes this time around, yet the Greens are threatening almost universal coverage (as are TUSC, I believe).

Whilst the current electoral system is skewed in favour of the big two, in the ‘anything can happen’ set of possibilities is a Green or UKIP PM (and indeed a TUSC PM if they do put up enough candidates). In these circumstances it is fair and reasonable to invite all leaders who face the possibility of residence in Downing Street. To do otherwise somewhat takes the electorate for granted, even if this is somewhat backed up by historical evidence.

One of my motivators for being an electoral reformer is my disappointment that so many of our elections are being seemingly decided before a ballot has been cast. A leaders’ debate that excludes any national party leader surely also somewhat prejudges the outcome. Whilst I believe it will be either David Cameron or Ed Miliband who wakes up as PM on May 8th, it is ultimately the decision of the people.

One Response to Primus inter pares

  1. I sense that I am in a minority in being alarmed at seeing a whole campaign reduced to three one-hour slots (or whatever format is agreed upon this time).

    One of the problems is that it is the broadcasters who are deciding this – and they are interested in ratings and letting entertainment trump other considerations. Hence the “elimination” format.

    On X-Factor tonight we have:
    Nigel Farage
    Nick Clegg
    Ed Miliband, and
    David Cameron
    Tonight one will be sent home, and who will it be?

    It’s not you Ed; it’s not you Dave; it might be you Nick; it’s …..
    [ten second delay if on ITV, five seconds if on BBC]
    Sorry Nigel we are sending you home!
    (How appropriate!)

    In the next edition, we have the same phoney rigged format, but it’s Nick that gets the chop!

    Leaving the grand final slug off between Ed and Dave.

    This whole process focuses us down on the remaining two – irrespective of the situation in our own constituencies.

    Most of us in England will have a five way choice as a minimum. In Scotland and Wales they will also have their own Nationalists. I can’t vote for the Nationalists, but I very definitely have an interest in what they have to say and how the UK parties respond to what they have to say.

    For the Scots Nats to just “emerge” after the election and to start (legitimately) making demands that have had little or no UK-wide exposure or examination prior to the election would be very damaging for the reputation of Westminster politics – as well as being very divisive.

    So as a minimum I think we need to see and hear from:
    Liberal Democrats,
    Scottish Nationalists, and
    Plaid Cymru

    I then see no justification in not having them all appearing in all the debates. I personally would like to see different spokesmen appearing in different debates – say four covering:
    – Economy (including Business)
    – Home Affairs (including Health and Education)
    – Foreign Affairs (including Defence and Europe)
    – General open scope

    Why do the broadcasters believe that in making my decision:

    I do not need to see the Green’s Leader
    I only need to see Farage once (OK some say once is all you need)
    I only need to see Clegg twice (once for each cheek?), but
    I need to see Cameron and Miliband three times (the ones I see every Wednesday at PMQs)!

    But I am not voting for Cameron or Miliband! I don’t elect a Prime Minister, I (in theory) elect a Member of Parliament – who is meant to represent me and others in the constituency and contribute to being part of a House of Commons (again in theory) representative of the whole country.

    The broadcasters have been allowed to propose the format and then it is down to party self-interest as to whether the format is accepted!

    What about our interest?

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