The historic news that the leaders of Britain's three main political parties will for the first time take part in a series of televised debates at the next general election has been mired in accusations that they have 'stitched up democracy' for their own benefit.
The Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru are outraged that, despite their own prominent roles in Scotland and Wales respectively (with the SNP forming the government in Scotland) they will get no place in the debate. Nor will the Green Party.
While welcoming a step forward in public debate and accountability, democracy campaigners also accuse the main parties of boosting themselves at the expense of others and satisfying the thirst for big audiences for the BBC, ITV and Sky.
Labour and the Conservatives were known not to be keen on letting the Liberal Democrats through the door, but knew that they would face a major political and legal challenge if they tried to exclude them.
The SNP are now indicating that they will take the issue to court.
Already, tabloid newspapers are narrowing the political agenda further by describing the series of encounters as 'Gordon Brown versus David Cameron', dismissing Nick Clegg's participation as a side show.
The three leaders will be subjected to a total of around four-and-a-half hours of live television scrutiny. ITV will host the first debate, which will be presented by anchor Alistair Stewart. Sky News will go second with political editor Adam Boulton in the chair. The third and final debate, on the BBC, will be fronted by the Question Time presenter, David Dimbleby.
Dimbleby said: "I’m delighted all three parties have now agreed and think it’s a good day for democracy."
But Scotland’s First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party Alex Salmond took a very different view. He said yesterday: "It is entirely unacceptable to Scotland as well as to the SNP for the broadcasters to exclude the party that forms the government of Scotland – and indeed is now leading in Westminster election polls."
He continued: "If these debates are to be at all relevant to their audiences, they must reflect the democratic reality of Scotland and political diversity across the UK. And that must include SNP involvement in debates broadcast in Scotland."
"The fact is that the General Election in Scotland will be a two-horse race between the SNP and Labour – and the most recent Scottish poll for Westminster put the SNP ahead, at 34 per cent compared to 32 per cent for Labour, 15 per cent for the Tories, and 12 per cent for the Lib Dems," said Salmond.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the think tank Ekklesia, which earlier this year published a report on alternative politics, said that the structure and nature of the debate as currently envisaged was unsatisfactory and needed to be reconsidered by the Electoral Commission.
He commented: "While it is certainly good that the major party leaders are recognising the need for more scrutiny by agreeing to television debates, it seems that what is being proposed is stage-managed events controlled by broadcasting and big party interests in front of specially selected audiences. These encounters will exclude other significant parties, reinforcing the dominant system and a London-centred view."
Barrow added: "Many will view TV debates as a step forward, but it is important to recognise that what is on offer here is not a renewal of democracy, but a camera make-over. Established politicians should not be allowed to use the hype around these debates to detract from the issues of fundamental voting and political reform. It is grassroots participation and involvement that lies at the heart of democracy, not the attempts of 'the big three' to hog the limelight."
Plaid Cymru's leader in Westminster, Elfyn Llwyd, called for his party to be included in the major debate and said that the details of the separate debates to be held in Wales were not known.
He told BBC Radio Wales's 'Good Morning Wales' programme: "As it stands it's unfair because it places us in an electoral disadvantage. It doesn't matter what might be cobbled together in the future to appease Wales. My view is the Electoral Commission should have a good look at it."
Alex Salmond added: "The broadcasters have got to meet their public service obligations to audiences across the UK, and for them to propose debates which signally fail to do so, shows an extraordinarily high-handed attitude and depressingly metropolitan mindset. We have had leaders’ debates in Scotland for many years, so there is nothing new in that.
"The broadcasters would do well to recall the debacle experienced by the BBC’s Panorama programme in 1995, when they were forced not to broadcast an interview with the Prime Minister in Scotland because it breached the rules of impartiality during a Scottish local election.
"We shall seek guarantees of inclusion from the broadcasters, given their inescapable duty to ensure fairness and impartiality in election-related coverage in Scotland. Sky has made some constructive suggestions, but we have had no proposals from the BBC or ITV – which is extraordinary, given that these broadcasters have the greatest public service obligations."
Since 2002, Ekklesia has been arguing that a key element of political and democratic renewal in Britain hinges on the encouragement of independent, citizen-based and associational politics as a counter-weight to the hegemony of top-down party elites, and as a challenge to a parliamentary and voting system badly in need of reform. See: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/independent_politics