David Cameron’s decision on the TV debates was one of the worst of his life. No, not yesterday’s ‘final offer’ to the broadcasters of only one 90-minute debate with seven (or eight) parties represented, and held well before the start of the ‘short campaign’ prior to the General Election of 7 May. Rather, it was his decision to push for TV debates five years ago, when he was Leader of the Opposition, that caused the damage.
In purely ‘political’ terms, that decision quickly back to bite him. It gave an opportunity to the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, to come forward as the ‘Anti-Westminster’ candidate, boosting that party’s standing and forcing the Conservatives into coalition.
TV debates of course always help the underdog and damage the government. So now that Cameron is Prime Minister, he is facing the same calls for debates from Labour and the smaller parties, and is having to take the same criticism he launched at PM Gordon Brown last time, that he is ‘frit’ of defending his record.
But there are two, more fundamental problems. The first is that there is no logical way to decide which parties should be represented in TV debates. The debates are, after all, seen as a ‘national event’, rather than some throw-away entertainment, so it is important that they should be fairly structured. But it is impossible to include all of the dozens of parties, including pop-up parties, who contest seats in the General Election. So where does one draw the line? The Liberal Democrats may be sharing power, but they are polling little better than the Greens. UKIP has come from almost nowhere, but now out-poll the Liberal Democrats, so should they be included at the expense of the LibDems? And the Democratic Unionist Party (and Sinn Fein for that matter) may well stand only in Northern Ireland, but they are key forces there, so should they be on the platform too?
There simply is no objective way to decide. And no answer is going to suit every party. (And it is for this same reason that taxpayer funding of political parties can never work either – unless the two biggest parties simply divide the funding up between them and resist any claims from ‘upstarts’).
The most serious problem, though, is a constitutional issue. Britain’s governmental system is not supposed to be a Presidential one. True, the Prime Minister has many of the powers that a US President has, powers that once belonged to the monarch (like initiating wars and signing treaties, without troubling Parliament overmuch). But the Prime Minister is not just an executive, but still a member of the legislature – a Member of Parliament. When British voters go to the polls, they are supposed to be electing their local MP – someone who will actually hold the government to account. They might take into account what that might mean in terms of who moves in to 10 Downing Street, but in all but one constituency, that is not who they are electing.
There is an argument that the executive in Britain has too much power, precisely because it also controls the legislature. Of 650 MPs, a hundred are on the payroll, a hundred would like to be, and two hundred on the other side are lining themselves up with the same in mind. So party leaders and offers have enormous power, and Parliament has very little restraint on them. Maybe we should be separating the executive and legislative branches. Certainly, the last thing we should be doing is deepening the power of the executive further. But this is precisely the effect of TV debates. They focus attention on just one person, boosting centralism and central power. That is not healthy for any nation. Frankly, there should be no TV debates at all.