14 Jan 2015

I’d unleash Ant, Dec and Darcey Bussell on our wilting political class

Man points at other man. You’re running scared of debating with me, he says. No, says the other man, it’s you who’s scared of debating with me. The clash takes place in the oldest debating chamber in the western world but nobody things it’s ironic. They get red faced and their neck veins stand out.

This is the absurdity of the debate over the debates. We had, for the first time ever in 2010, a three-way debate between the main, UK-wide party leaders.  At the time, because of Cleggmania, we assumed that by allowing the third party to get an equal voice, and because its leader did not come across as a wax dummy,  the debates had opened up politics into a three-way fight.

Since then the Lib Dem polling has collapsed, and though they got into government, the Lib Dems did not break through because of the debates.

Now we’re in a one-off situation. The rise of Ukip has for certain broken open English politics as a four-horse race. But the Scottish referendum showed – and in fact we knew already – that UK politics is now heavily shaped by the rise of Scottish nationalism and pro-independence politics.

As somebody who has covered both stories, Ukip and the indyref, my gut feeling is that the rise of both phenomena are being driven by similar discontents. Some 45 per cent of Scots want out of Britain, while an unspecified number of voters – about 27 per cent in the Euro elections – want Britain out of the EU.

But nobody is proposing to put the SNP on an equal par with Ukip in the debates. Instead, in a perfectly transparent tactical move, the Tories say the Greens have to be in the debates. Otherwise no debates. Labour – which is quietly hemorrhaging votes to the Greens, and very worried that the Greens become a kind of Podemos to their left – are blocking that move.

If the Greens get a place and not the SNP, or Ukip gets a place and not the others, it does not seem congruent with natural justice. However, the entire electoral system is unjust in that respect. It is moulded around incumbent power.

There is no constitutional requirement to have TV debates at all; and should we end up with a six-person platform (unlikely but bear with me) the leaders of the two big parties could with some justification say: it’s a circus, why bother?

Here’s why I would like them to bother. Elections happen every five years, but in the mass consciousness that is being driven by new technology and social media, there is a new zeitgeist every three or four months: new business models, new obsessions, new “common sense” believed by masses of people.

The new zeitgeist, as far as I can gauge it, is this: maybe 15 per cent of people are so fed up with the existing system they will vote for an untested and quite mercurial party of the right, which will pull us out of Europe. They deserve to see that politics go up against its opposite: the consensual centrism that, despite their differences, Clegg, Cameron and Miliband all share. And centrist voters deserve to see how these three strands of market-oriented, socially liberal centrism fare, in open battle, with Nigel Farage.

The SNP – as a party that could easily end up with a bigger slice of a coalition than the Lib Dems have now – deserve to be asked hard questions. Its been said, jokingly, they should stand paper candidates in England to gain the right to be in the debates. But in principle, the SNP is a UK-wide party, since its desired outcome would profoundly affect the UK: so English and Welsh voters should get the opportunity to see the SNP answer tough questions.

Finally, on the Greens, the problem is they have made no breakthrough. The 8 per cent poll showing they have now might dwindle once it comes to a general election, but for the sake of principle I wouldn’t exclude them.

So here’s my proposal. Instead of relying on a motley crew of national broadcasters – who all have skin in the game, living cheek by jowl at Millbank with the politicians themselves, and always eager to maintain “access” – there should be a judicial review of the debates, and we should let the UK supreme court decide their format.

Seriously. TV is so critical to the outcome of elections, that I would rather have judges than TV people erect the hustings.

If we end up with no debates, and the real debates end up being between Russell Brand, Farage and any other heterodox voices who can sway the hand-picked audience of Question Time, that’s a retreat.

Everybody with any exposure to the mass audience of tabloid newspapers and TV news knows what the politicians hate to admit: politics is a massive turn-off, the zeitgeist is mistrust, demagogy is going unchecked, and the main parties’ essential fiscal strategy is to hide their fiscal strategy.

I would drag these guys kicking and screaming into a public debate. I would make the presenters the bad-est ass inquisitors in Britain. And I would get Darcey Bussell and Craig Revell-Horwood to give marks out of ten for composure, in real time. I would get Ant and Dec to mock them behind their backs and if there was a tie breaker needed, it would be the bush-tucker challenge.

Gents (and ladies), you want to run the country, don’t you, not the university debating society?

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