Thursday, January 03, 2013

Who should be in the election debates?

Having been reading UK Polling Report: Well, SOMEBODY has to win there's one point that's sprung out a bit:
I do also ponder exactly how the Parliamentary Conservative party will react if UKIP come top in the European election next year and the inevitable spike in normal opinion polls that will follow a strong European election performance… especially if the election debates are being negotiated at the time. Having lost an election to Cleggmania David Cameron probably won’t want to risk Faragemania, but in the event that UKIP are ahead of the Liberal Democrats in the polls it may be difficult to argue that Farage should not be included in the debates.
If leader debates are to become a permanent feature of British elections then there will need to be some firm rules about which parties are and aren't represented in the debates, and perhaps also who they are allowed to send. And it's better that they're worked out in a quiet period rather than in the heat of a run-up to the election with loud voices insisting that the line should be conveniently drawn just below their preferred party.

At the last election ten parties, one independent and one Speaker were elected. Over forty parties in total stood, though some of the smaller ones may have had pacts and alliances that nobody noticed. A ten-way debate is utterly unworkable. A forty-way affair would have no time for actual debate. Clearly there has to be a reasonable restriction to viable parties.

Looking at how other countries handle this question, the most familiar debates come from the United States. In the Presidential elections nearly all debates since 1960 have seen just the Democrat and Republican candidates debate, though note that no debates were held between 1960 & 1976 so nobody had to decide about George Wallace in 1968. But two years were exceptions - 1980 when the debates initially included independent John Anderson (& would have included running mate Patrick Lucey), and 1992 when they included Ross Perot (& James Stockdale). In 1980 the question of Anderson's inclusion was highly divisive, with Jimmy Carter refusing to attend debates that included him and Ronald Reagan refusing to attend debates that excluded him. This resulted in Carter boycotting the first debate, which saw Reagan & Anderson get low viewing figures, and the scheduled second debate and Vice-Presidential debate were both cancelled. In the end Reagan conceded the exclusion of Anderson and a single Carter-Reagan debate was held. In 1992 Perot & Stockdale managed to get into the debates but four years later Perot was kept out with various thresholds set - if I remember correctly these were largely at the insistence of the two big parties. Since then no third party candidate has made it into a major debate though there have been some "Other candidates" debates held for Libertarians, Greens and the like.

But the US also have the lengthy primary process in which multiple candidates for a nomination regularly square off against each other and where there are few firm markers as to a candidate's viability beyond opinion polls. The primaries have often seen spectacular rises and falls of various candidates so the case for having as many as ten (or even more) is harder to dispute.

However the US is far from the only country to have such debates. Other countries also have them and they have very different approaches. In the past I've posted clips of such debates from Australia, Canada and New Zealand and from Poland, Spain and Germany. In all but the Canadian debate, participation was limited to the leader/prime ministerial candidate (in some countries the two posts are not always the same) of the two biggest parties. Doubtlessly there were no end of third parties demanding they get a spot there, but the relevant decision makers chose the top two.

A bigger field comes from Canada which has had debates since 1968. In nearly all cases the admission criteria for federal debates appears to have been that a party hold at least one seat in the House of Commons, even when that seat has been gained by a defection - hence the Greens were included in 2008 but not in 2011. The only exclusion I can spot was Social Credit in 1968, although the breakaway Ralliement Créditiste was included. Parties that only run in one part of Canada have been included, hence the Bloc Québécois have participated in every debate since 1993. (One issue has been inclusion in the French language debates as some parties have had leaders who didn't speak the language. The solution has been to allow them to appear on the programme to read a prepared statement but not actually debate.) However the formula has resulted in recent elections seeing four and five way debates that have attracted criticism for turning into the sitting PM vs Everyone Else. A solitary seat out of over 300 is perhaps too low a threshold though any amendment beyond requiring the party to have actually won the seat in its own right is possibly too controversial to implement.

The UK precedent so far is for three parties to be included - and in 2010 they were the big three in all of opinion polls, seats at the last election, seats at the dissolution and votes at the last election. However which particular criteria should be selected if there's another party on at least one of those lists?

Since the election is a general election for the Westminster Parliament, performance in elections for other bodies should not be a factor in the calculations. Equally as it will be an election, a party should not qualify on a seats held rule if it has only gained representation in the Commons through defection. If two parties merge then they should inherit their predecessors' performance. In the event of a split the legal continuation should carry forward previous performance. But what about new parties surging in the opinion polls? Should they be dismissed with a reminder of what a "surge" means in politics? (Clue: It's an old Spitting Image joke.) Or should there be some opinion poll criteria for inclusion?

Invariably the closer the election comes, the more such a discussion on rules will turn into a debate about whether or not UKIP should be included. No doubt we will hear kippers deploying a list of reasons why they should be included, and ignoring an endless list of why they shouldn't. But it's not just UKIP - the Lib Dems' poll ratings in this parliament have at times reached the point where their own viability can be seriously questioned. And the Greens made a breakthrough at the last election. There will be many voices clamouring for inclusion and exclusion.

But the media are used to taking such decisions when deciding which parties get party political broadcasts, appear on Question Time, get slots in other election programmes and so forth. It should not be hard to come up with a robust formula for inclusion that can be easily explained and which can resist a clamour by excluded parties at the election itself. A points system could allow for multiple factors to be taken into consideration so it need not be based solely on seats.

But most importantly it needs to be set down well in advance and not be a point of argument as the election looms.

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