Did you see Salmond and Darling shouting over each other in the recent debate on Scottish independence? Things are hotting up north of the border! The police are being called in to maintain order at meetings and to ensure there is no intimidation at the polling stations in a fortnight’s time.
So back to that debate where the moderator failed to control the Scotland First Minister Alex Salmond and the leader of Better Together Alistair Darling. But it was lively and so was the audience.
Will we have a similar debate for the whole of the UK next year at the General Election? It shouldn’t really be necessary to ask that question considering the success of the first party leader debates ever in 2010. Twenty million people watched the three debates including the young and those who usually consider political programmes a waste of time. The first debate produced the historic initial surge in support for Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg.
They were a valuable new feature of our general election campaign and their future should be secure, but it isn’t.
This autumn broadcasters and politicians will be locked in prolonged negotiations with no certainty that we will get debates next year. There are a number of questions.
WILL THEY HAPPEN AT ALL?
For decades the debates never happened largely because whoever was in power felt they had everything to lose by allowing their opponents the even playing field of a studio debate. They only happened in 2010 because Sky threatened to go ahead with an empty chair if Gordon Brown, David Cameron or Nick Clegg failed to turn up.
The Conservatives have been prevaricating for months. Heaven knows why. Ed Miliband’s “oddness” should work in the Tories favour in this image obsessed world. By now we ought to know for certain that the debates are to take place with all the details in place. The closer we get to May 7th with the political temperature rising, the more difficult will become the negotiations. There were 76 clauses covering the conduct of the 2010 debates!
HOW MANY DEBATES?
David Cameron has suggested that the debates dominated the campaign to the exclusion of local activity. There is some truth in that. We were either analysing the last encounter or speculating about the next. This was all people were talking about on the doorstep. Cameron has suggested there might be only one debate or if there were more then they should be spread across January to May next year.
WHAT ABOUT UKIP?
The biggest problem for the broadcasters is the rise of UKIP. The BBC, ITV and Sky all have guidelines about who should appear in programmes and for how long. I should know. I spent enough time hovering over a stop watch in the campaigns from 1974-2005.
The guidelines refer to due weight being given to major parties and appropriate coverage to others. None of that helps us with UKIP. They will have at least one MP by the General Election (Douglas Carswell in Clacton), they won the European Election, have a number of councillors and a respectable opinion poll rating. To deny Nigel Farage his place alongside Cameron, Miliband and Clegg would anger the British voters.
I don’t agree with anything UKIP stands for. They are edging us towards the disaster of the exit door from the EU, but they represent a distinctive point of view in this General Election and they must be heard.
In 2010 members of the public were allowed their foot in the door, but only to pose a question and then shut up. Time must be given to allow the questioner to comment on the initial answers given. That right would not be abused because the audience will have been vetted most carefully for party balance.
We need to hear PDQ that the debates are on.