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.