BBC and ITV look set to expand party leader debates

By staff writers
January 23, 2015

Despite weeks of refusing to budge it now looks as if BBC and ITV are set to expand the General Election 2015 party leader debates to include the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and the Greens in one of the exchanges.

It remains uncertain what Sky, the third big broadcaster will do. None of them have made definite commitments yet, but it seems that mass public pressure has begun to shift 'establishment' attitudes towards the political landscape, which has been pluralising significantly as the existing 'two and a half' party system shows further cracks.

Nevertheless, "it's not a done deal yet and there could well be more wrangling to follow – in fact that's highly likely," an industry insider told Ekklesia last night.

There has also been legal pressure on broadcasters. The SNP launched a legal challenge against the BBC in 2010 for refusing to allow its then leader Alex Salmond to take part in its television debate, one of three that took place before the last election. Plaid Cymru also threatened legal action after their exclusion five years ago. The Greens did so this time.

Natalie Bennett, Green Party leader in England and Wales, commented this week: “We warmly welcome the broadcasters’ reported decision to include the Greens. It is a recognition that the politics of the future does not have to look like the politics of the past. The broadcasters have joined the age of multi-party politics.

“It is a decision that serves the interests of both the electorate and British democracy. Our membership and polling surge demonstrates that when people hear about Green Party values and policies many embrace them. The political landscape is fracturing and fewer and fewer people want the business-as-usual politics offered by the traditional Westminster parties."

Late in 2014, nearly 300,000, mostly non-members, signed a petition protesting against the Greens being kept out of the big broadcasters’ planned TV debates,

Since then the Greens have surged, partly as a result of the publicity around their possible exclusion from the debates, and have signed up 13,000 new members in one week. Total membership is now more than 46,000, compared to the Liberal Democrats' 44,526 members and UKIP, 41,943. Including members of the independent Green parties in Scotland and Wales pushes the figure up to a little under 60,000.

Plaid Cymru party leader Leanne Wood said: "We welcome the expected revised proposals put forward by ITV and the BBC. We have always maintained that it is an important democratic principle that people in this election should be presented with a clear picture of the choice that they face on polling day.

"This is a significant victory for the vast number of people who have campaigned for the inclusion of the anti-austerity parties in these debates. I look forward to taking part and making the case for Wales to have as strong a voice as possible in Westminster by backing Plaid Cymru in May."

The SNP now have just under 100,000 members, making them easily the third largest party by membership in Britain.

SNP Westminster Leader Angus Robertson MP said: “If it is true that SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon will be included in UK-wide debates under the broadcasters' new proposals, it represents very welcome progress.

“With a larger membership than the Lib Dems and UKIP combined, and more elected MPs than UKIP, the case for including the SNP in the televised debates is unanswerable.

“A recent YouGov poll shows that most people across the UK support Nicola Sturgeon being included in the televised leaders debates. We want these debates to happen, and they need to include the SNP so that the diversity of politics and our democracy across the UK is reflected.

"With polls indicating strong SNP support, and the possibility of holding the balance of power at Westminster, it is only fair that people north and south of the border have the opportunity to hear what the SNP have to say about reversing austerity, cancelling Trident, and achieving new powers for Scotland

“The inclusion of the SNP, Plaid and the Greens with Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett will also rightly show that politics beyond Westminster isn’t just an old boys club.”

The new complicating factor is the Democratic Unionist Party, which currently has eight MPs, making it the fourth-largest party in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats had largely sat on the fence about Green participation in the debates, though individuals spoke out on democratic grounds.

Prime Minister David Cameron and some Conservatives favoured broadening the debate, to take UKIP fire away from then.

The PM's statement that he would not take part without the Greens having a place in one of the debates raised the stakes for the broadcasters, who are desperate that they should go ahead.

Leader debates hosted by the UK’s main broadcasters are not the only offer on the table. Guardian News & Media and Telegraph Media Group have proposed an internet debate to be streamed live online in a partnership with YouTube.

The newspaper groups and Google-owned YouTube have been in discussion about the proposal, #onlinedebate, since formally pitching their plan in May 2014.

The news network al-Jazeera may also offer an alternative to the TV leader debates put forward by the main UK broadcasters, with at least five parties involved.

The beliefs and values think-tank Ekklesia wrote to the BBC back in October 2014 setting out the case for broadening election debates beyond what get defined as 'major parties' – with added distinctive features, such as the notion of a "People's Debate".

* Broadening the General Election television debates (Ekklesia letter to the BBC):

* More on the 2015 General Election from Ekklesia:
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