When the main broadcasters released proposals on 13 October for 4 debates leading up to the general election in May, the subject that took up much of the political debate was that of inclusion.
It began with criticism from the Liberal Democrats to not being able to take part in one of the debates as they were a party in power, and included calls from UKIP leader Nigel Farage to take part in more than one debate considering their performance at Westminster by-elections.
Yet, the most notable criticism on the subject came from the Green Party, and its leader, Natalie Bennett. The initial proposals saw the Party would not be taking part in any of the 4 debates. Criticism came quickly from not only Bennett, but also political observers, calling for individuals to sign a petition to allow the Party to take part, citing the current interest in the Greens.
— BBC Radio 5 live (@bbc5live) October 13, 2014
SCANDALOUS that Green Party excluded from TV debate. PLEASE SIGN PETITION. I have. https://t.co/gBOp3z7Mxz Bri
— Dr. Brian May (@DrBrianMay) October 15, 2014
UKIP get TV debate coverage but Greens are left out. Urge anyone who feels strongly about this to sign… https://t.co/lpeEvrZK4o
— Oliver Blagden (@OliverBlagden) October 29, 2014
The Green Party have just as much claim on being in the televised leader’s debate. Sign here: http://t.co/LBYpMrpfrh
— Eleanor Walsh (@eleanorwalsh94) October 30, 2014
The Party has two MPs, three MEPs and representation on two councils, the London Assembly and the Brighton and Hove Council.
On 15 October, Penny Kemp, the director of communications for the Greens, wrote to the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky regarding the proposals and called for the Party to be included, requesting the criteria for denial as well as meetings, and said the Party could take legal action if not included.
“The Green Party received 150,000 more votes than the Liberal Democrats in the 2014 European Elections and won three times as many seats as them,” Kemp wrote. “In General Election opinion polls the Greens are neck-and-neck with the junior Coalition partners.”
Kemp added that despite the lack of air time its policies are popular with the public, citing polls from the polling agency YouGov and the web site Vote for Policies.
“There is clear public support for including the Green Party in the Leaders’ Debates – from people who would never vote Green,” Kemp wrote. “Regardless of their politics most people have a strong sense of what is right and fair. Excluding the Green Party is both wrong and unjust.”
Fighting for air time
On 24 October, Ric Bailey, the BBC’s senior adviser in politics, replied to Kemp, saying that the decision to include UKIP was based on “a substantial increase in electoral support since 2014 across a range of elections along with a consistent and robust trend across a full range of opinion polls.”
The letter added that the rise in performance of the Green Party was as a result of the loss of popularity of the Liberal Democrats, and said at the time of the letter opinion polls had not indicated the Party had been at an equable level of popularity with the Lib Dems.
Five days after its publication, reports of the letter began to surface online, and then the following day appeared in print editions of most of the national newspapers.
Reached by email, Kemp told Kettle that the Party’s negotiations with the BBC were ongoing. When it came to other broadcasters, Kemp said the Party was due to meet with representatives of ITV on 7 November. Kemp said that Channel 4 and Sky had not replied.
Kemp said that discussions on potential legal action was continuing internally.
“We are continuing to talk to our lawyers but of course would like to resolve this in an amicable way by coming to a mutually agreeable position,” Kemp said.
A spokesperson for the BBC declined to comment for this article, as well as any potential legal action against the broadcasters. A spokesperson for Channel 4 confirmed that the broadcaster received the letter and would be replying. Sky did not respond to a request seeking comment.
A spokesperson for ITV said they received the letter and would reply. The spokesperson added that the debates would be part of overall election coverage, and that the criteria used prompted the proposed debate.
“We will give due weight to the coverage of major parties and appropriate coverage to other parties across specific debate–related programmes, and other election programming throughout the election period,” the spokesperson said. “In developing our proposal we looked at a number of factors including; performance at the previous General Election, representation in the House of Commons, playing a substantial role in the UK government or the official parliamentary opposition, performance in national and local elections since 2010, and opinion poll numbers over a sustained period.”
Attempts to reach ITV for comment regarding the planned meeting with the Green Party prior to editorial deadline were unsuccessful.
The broadcasters and the electorate
With negotiations ongoing, this opens questions as to the decision making and criteria of the proposals. In a telephone interview, Dr Rainbow Murray, a Senior Lecturer in Politics at Queen Mary, University of London, said the debate on the inclusion of smaller parties is linked to the electoral system, where larger parties get a high share of seats.
“That creates a disproportion in Parliament to what the population asked for,” Murray said. “In terms of popularity, Greens have a higher vote share. Some people don’t vote Green because it is a wasted vote.”
Murray adds that there is an exaggerated importance of bigger parties compared to smaller parties, and the thinking of the BBC in their letter to the Green Party reflects that.
“The BBC may be overlooking the role of smaller parties because of the fact of the electoral system diminishes their importance,” Murray said.
In long term negotiations, Murray says broadcasters need to consider audience and reputation, including a delicate balance between airtime to the bigger parties as well as the smaller parties. Murray says that if most of the airtime is given to the smaller parties, audiences may turn away from the debate.
Yet, the issue of reputation when it comes to giving airtime to a Party also raises questions.
“If you give airtime to a controversial party, you risk being seen as endorsing that Party,” Murray said. “If you give the Greens or UKIP air time, why not the BNP or other parties. You can’t be seen in making partisan decisions or censoring, but you can’t give a platform to parties alienating the electorate.”
Murray says the best solution is a threshold, which would justify the decisions made by the broadcasters. This threshold, Murray says, can be a percentage of the vote or a number of seats in Parliament.
“Then people ask, and then you have a legal justification for why,” Murray said. “Focus on parties most visible without needing to include every party.”
With the general election almost 6 months away, and the debates almost 5 months away, questions will continue on what parties should be included, and what role the parties are seen in. Viewers will need to stay tuned to see the final picture on the second series of debates in British political history.
What do you think? Should the Green Party be included in the debates? Have your say in the comments section below.
Westminster image: Diliff / Wikimedia Commons