Broadcasters are threatening to go ahead and 'empty-chair' Prime Minister David Cameron in the proposed general election debates, now set to include seven parties at the last count. And this is only the latest stage of the great debate debate. The issue is hugely significant because the 2010 showdown between then-leaders of the three historic parties probably determined the coalition government of the last five years, as UK voters finally got to enjoy the format they have seen in presidential elections over the decades. So if TV was good for promoting change, and the electorate seems to want even more of it this year, why not let them all have at it?
I write from the US where televised debates are a feature of every election but for dog-catcher, and the Republican Party's presidential primary has seen a crowded field in recent years. Of course, we are talking about choosing a party to lead the country, not the person to lead a party. But a comparison leads to the conclusion a packed line-up in the UK general would produce all the disadvantages of televised populism, and none of the benefits. Instead, the key to solving the voter dissatisfaction the minor parties are just a symptom of is introducing the primaries themselves.
This is for several reasons. First, the GOP case history shows what happens in the multi-candidate formula when one becomes the front-runner, or is already in the job; the others simply 'pile-on' and don't bother engaging each other. Of course, Cameron does not want this to happen to him. But the result is the public does not get real scrutiny of all the proposals. The whole discussion is framed as criticism of just one other platform.
Second, because this is not a primary among party brethren, Cameron was correct to refuse the first four party line-up that included UKIP yet not the Green Party. That would skew the national political debate to the right of centre. You might think that would be great for the Tories, but because Cameron is incumbent he would be fending off to the left and right, leaving no one to challenge Labour and the Lib-Dems from their own flank. Given that Clegg has fallen from televised grace in government, and Miliband is as unpopular in his own party as he is in Scotland, it is fitting they have some left-wing debate opposition. Plus, the Greens have an MP who won handily own her right, rather than employing the familiar face of a major-party defector as UKIP did.
Then there is the issue of fair representation. In a volatile primary the candidates generally have more equal overall support, even if one is flavour of the month. And if there is an incumbent or someone pulls away, the challengers get a chance to offset their greater financial support and name recognition from the lectern. But in the UK general, there is no possible way you can say Plaid Cymru has the same kind of support base as the Prime Minister. I can say that, I'm half Welsh. Meanwhile, the Leader of the Opposition benefits from state funding and is already known around the country, or at least you would hope so.
Worst of all, the inclusion of nationalists like the SNP compounds those problems of candidate aloofness and disproportionate representation to produce more of the divisiveness we saw in the referendum. Nicola Sturgeon has no reason to seriously debate to uncover real solutions, or appeal outside her base support. Why should she? No one outside her base can vote for her! And to be fair, all the parties will use the brief spot in the limelight to parrot their talking points, a main criticism of the media circus in US politics, because there will be little time for anything else.
The real cause of this double-digit support for historically minor parties the debates are trying to mediate is the brittle way we choose candidates for Parliament in the first place. No wonder the broadcasters and the party leaders are lobbying for inclusion; it's their only chance to effect real political change, as Clegg did in 2010. They are going for what marketers call the 'direct response', top-down TV model because the leading brands have ignored the ground-swells of opinion emanating from their own ranks. David Cameron finds UKIP distasteful, even though it is traditional Tory voters who most believe EU migration is out of control. Ed Miliband is scared to death of sitting in Parliament with left-wingers who will hurt him in marginal constituencies so the activists who should be pushing his pamphlets have gone Green instead. And the SNP is gaming their way to socialism by way of smashing up the UK because Westminster didn't act soon enough to devolve enough.
The solution, instead of including people in a national televised debate who have no possible chance of leading the country, is to vastly increase open primaries for the selection of all party candidates in the first place. That is the part of US politics we should be emulating, rather than mimicking a misplaced media model that will deliver all the downsides and none of the up. In fact, we have a good shot at the converse by instead renewing the democratic process itself.
The genius of the British constitution allows open primaries, meaning we already have a way of ensuring responsive government that is truer to our ancient liberties than prime-time schmoozing or European Union-style electoral reform. The deep roots of democracy reach down to constituency level; just look how one by-election can change the game. The tree of liberty just needs watering a bit. People who feel strongly enough to make a protest vote can make their views known to their local party, there can be debate among as many candidates as they like, about whatever they like, for as long as they want, then go down the pub afterwards and nourish the tree of liberty that way.
The Conservative Party is already on the way with fifteen open primaries to choose their candidates this year rather than three last time around. But that is a fraction of their three hundred-odd seats. Also, they are making it harder to enforce their party line in the Commons, while Labour isn't, and is unlikely to because of the power of the unions. For as long as the parliamentary party's nominating officer has to approve a candidate, they will pick the ones that fit nicely into their numbers and current leadership. That is not the best way to pick leaders that think for themselves, and propose solutions the public has forsaken the major parties for. So we should change it. I'd rather lose the existing political elite than lose the country.
So while the broadcasting establishment may think they are being clever calling out Cameron and becoming the story, they are really cooking up even more voter dissatisfaction. Inclusive government, not inclusive TV debates, is the key. If they are so concerned about democracy, instead of pretending to be CNN they should give greater voice to freethinkers in Parliament and the grassroots who would benefit from open primaries. Then these also-rans can get involved in a regionally diverse, responsive party politics with a vote from the backbenches. Where they belong.