David Cameron has declared his unwillingness to participate in that most pointless of American imports, the pre-election televised leaders’ debate, unless the Greens are invited too. Given that the Green Party has had an elected MP for substantially longer than Ukip and that Caroline Lucas1 is actually a Green rather than a loosely repurposed Tory like the two recent parliamentary additions from the purple pound party, this does seem reasonable on the face of it. The Greens have 32,000 members to Ukip’s 42,000 but get substantially less than three-quarters as much coverage2, so well, why shouldn’t they be there to redress the balance?
The addition of Nigel Farage to the debates is certainly going to add extra grease to the leadership barbecue, but if he gets to be there, then why not Natalie Bennett of the Greens? Why not the leaders of Plaid Cymru and the SNP, because their parties vote on issues that affect the UK as a whole, not just Wales and Scotland? There was a time towards the end of the Major government when the Ulster Unionists held the balance of power in the Commons, so the Northern Ireland parties need to be there too. The Monster Raving Loony Party have been a force in British politics for decades, so they at least deserve consideration. I’m not sure the BBC even have enough podiums in stock.
Enough observers have already pointed out the real reason for Cameron’s sudden conversion to a belief in multi-party democracy — the Greens don’t present much of a threat to Tory votes while Ukip most certainly does, but what they will do is take votes away from Labour and the Liberal Democrats by saying liberal and left-wing things that the current liberal and left-wing parties won’t say any more. He’s right in that it would be unfair for the Greens not to be there, but not because it would be unfair to the Greens. His concern is that it would be unfair to him. For some values of “unfair”.
What this kerfuffle brings into focus is the sheer pointlessness of face-to-face debates between party leaders during election campaigns. A debate in its most useful form is best structured as the hunt for a simple answer to a yes/no question. You know the sort of thing – questions like “this House believes that the Oxford Union serves a purpose in the year 2014 beyond that of being a social club for toff kids who intend to be cabinet ministers”. You can listen to people who support that point of view (George Osborne and Boris Johnson would probably be in favour) and you can listen to people give the opposing view (step forward, Dennis Skinner and Alan “no relation” Johnson). Once that’s all done, you can pretty much make your mind up either way.
Political questions are rarely “for or against”, because they’re so big. The ones which are black or white in nature rarely form the cornerstone of election campaigns. Nobody’s going to go to the wall this year campaigning on the issue of whether to replace Trident. They’re going to be campaigning on messy issues like the NHS, education, and the economy, neither of which suit a “yes/no” answer (with the notable exception of “should the UK be in the European Union?”, which is probably another reason Cameron wants to see Farage’s influence diluted as much as possible). Many questions in politics are hard, nuanced and multi-faceted. This is why politics is hard, and it’s why trying to distil political discussion down to a series of easy questions in the hope that clear answers emerge is pointless.
There will almost certainly be discussions of the NHS during the televised debates. Now, I’m pretty sure that most people in the UK are in favour of the NHS. As a nation we’re so proud of Nye Bevan’s achievement that it played a central role in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. Yes, there are a few fringe people3 who aren’t in favour of the NHS, but by and large the NHS enjoys popularity ratings that no politician ever achieves. Whether the NHS should exist or not is simply not a question in British politics right now, but every statement about the NHS will be made with the intention of implying that the other lot constitute an existential threat to the NHS. Never mind the fact that the response to any proposal to abolish free-at-point-of-use healthcare would make the Poll Tax riots look like a picnic in Camberwick Green and politicians of every party know it, that’s the message they need to send.
And yet, every single party leader will waste the time of millions of people to point out at great length just how in favour of the NHS they are, and how all the others probably harbour secret anti-NHS feelings and possibly sneak into hospitals at night just to add names to the waiting lists and hide dead dogs under operating tables before tipping off the Daily Express. They will dig into their stores of carefully-briefed stats to find just the right soundbite to suggest that people were 5% unhappier with the NHS when the last lot were in charge. They won’t say anything of substance (senior politicians are well-trained in how to speak lots of words but not impart any information at all), but they’ll make really sure to get their well-briefed zingers in at the other lot more loudly than the other lot can fire off zingers of their own.
Once that’s done, they’ll talk for a while about how only their party thinks education is a good idea and how the others favour sending children to work at the age of 2. Then they’ll talk about how a strong economy would be a good thing to have but then go into a kind of Dalek-like repetition of one of the following views: (a) the UK needs to stay on the road, (b) the current driver is about to drive into a tree, or (c) the current driver is almost certainly drunk, but the other people who want to drive have all had a few too many as well.
Once done with their attempt to reduce the entire field of economics to a series of motoring analogies (possibly by way of a few credit card analogies when discussing public debt) they’ll all agree with each other about immigration being a great thing, but how only they can guarantee that only the right sort of immigrants get to immigrate. They’ll stop to bow their heads briefly in unanimous, reverent praise for the armed forces before returning to repeating that if any of the others get in the UK will be invaded and occupied by ISIS within weeks. Repeat until time is up, and at the end of it… well, nobody will have said anything, but the newspapers will pick a few random quotes to declare the party they favour to have “won” the debate. The harsh reality is that they might as well not bother having the debates at all – just let the press pretend that they did, as they’ll all claim that the same people won regardless.
If you want to know who to vote for in May, don’t bother listening to the flapping heads in the leader debates. More than two people can’t really have a debate, they can just have a discussion. It sounds like a particularly desperate episode of Question Time, a programme now so predictable and formulaic that the representatives of different parties might as well just swap press releases and save us all the trouble of listening to their blurtings.
I would love to hear more from the minority parties. The two-and-a-half-party system that’s been running the UK for a century or more has been strait-jacketed and focus-grouped into conservative, poll-hugging greyness. A debate between the two main party leaders looks like one of those comedy sketches where someone looks in a mirror that’s actually a window with someone looking back, and they spend the next five minutes trying to match each other’s facial movements in lockstep.
If it takes some poorly-controlled and comparatively radical leaders from the parties which Labour and the Conservatives regard as little more than potential coalition fodder in the highly probable event of a hung parliament in May to put a boot in the backside of political dialogue in the UK, I’ll all for it. If Nigel Farage wants to make them uncomfortable about having to justify their position on the UK’s place in Europe, or if Natalie Bennett wants to make them shuffle their feet when asked why nobody’s in jail for crashing the economy through incompetence and fraud, all the better. Just don’t call it a debate and expect it to produce answers, call it an episode of the Jeremy Kyle show.