A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

A Level Playing Field is Essential

In The Media on March 31, 2010 at 9:45 am

David Weber

A lot has been made about the TV debates this election, that one would almost think that it is a new thing in British politics to have leaders debates. But it is not. A leaders panel debate occurred in 2005.

This was called “Question Time”, and it was an election special. Now, I have a lot of respect for Question Time, despite sniffy comments that often come from the left-wing blogosphere. It represents a quintessentially true representation of the Parliamentary system, where parties field different representatives each week (or rather the BBC invite different representatives each week), thus countering the increasing presidentialism of the party system.

It is for this reason that I am concerned about the “leaders debates” events. I think it’s a nonsense in a Parliamentary system: encouraging the idea that leaders are competing with each other for election. Nothing could be further from the truth: their competitors will be inside the party, or inside the constituency. At most, leaders should participate in a panel debate: the nature of Question Time is that the audience dictate the agenda, quite unlike an organised debate on policy in which each candidate is not allowed to address the other personally.

I’m all for seeing the QT model extended, with other channels doing similar things. But trying to copy presidential debates is a corruption and perversion of a system which is fraught enough as it is. However, the debates seem to be getting one thing right, in giving Nick Clegg equal exposure. Alarmingly, the is at the same time that Question Time is getting this question badly wrong, and dropping the Liberal Democrats with regularity.

Other people have tackled the disastrous timing of these LD-free panels, so I’m going to skip that question. Suffice it to say that to ignore the Lib Dems’ most famous policy stand was never going to be a good decision. No, my point is more fundamental. The BBC claims that the Liberal Democrat, as the third party, do not qualify for as much representation in media. This is a catastrophic failure to understand the role of media in democratic choice.

A level playing field is essential for a good democratic fight. It is, in fact, analogous to the market, and problems of over-large companies. If one company gets too big a share in the market, it is counter-productive to the interests of choice and competition.

The parties do not, in fact, have a huge share of the democratic market, which makes things worse. They are over-represented in Parliament: whether this is a problem is a whole bigger debate. But the parties, in terms of a proportion of the votes cast, all round far closer than election results would have us believe.

This is how a question time panel is divided, whether by accident or design: One representative for the three parties, and two representatives outside of this sphere. The latter represent 40% of the panel; by accident or design this is the percentage of the electorate which does not vote in general elections at the moment. Occasionally minority parties are given a voice, such as the SNP in Scotland, and UKIP in England. Given this, the main parties’ representation can be weighed by the proportion of real votes they get: Labour being roughly 60% of 38% at the moment (<24%), Conservatives being a little under, probably around 20%, and the Liberal Democrats being around 13-14%. As such, the difference between the Liberal Democrats and the “big two” is far less than commonly imagined.

But this is immaterial, anyway. The simple fact is that for the electorate to be presented a serious choice, the main parties must be treated as equals. In an ideal world, this would benefit more than just three parties, but given the politics we have, it is patently clear that the main three parties, which are in most elections far ahead of the others, should be given equal exposure. Otherwise not only does the electoral system conspire against underdog, but the media does as well.

A lot has been made about the TV debates this election, that one would almost think that it is a new thing in British politics to have leaders debates. But it is not. A leaders panel debate occurred in 2005.This was called “Question Time”, and it was an election special. Now, I have a lot of respect for Question Time, despite sniffy comments that often come from the left-wing blogosphere. It represents a quintessentially true representation of the Parliamentary system, where parties field different representatives each week (or rather the BBC invite different representatives each week), thus countering the increasing presidentialism of the party system.

It is for this reason that I am concerned about the “leaders debates” events. I think it’s a nonsense in a Parliamentary system: encouraging the idea that leaders are competing with each other for election. Nothing could be further from the truth: their competitors will be inside the party, or inside the constituency. At most, leaders should participate in a panel debate: the nature of Question Time is that the audience dictate the agenda, quite unlike an organised debate on policy in which each candidate is not allowed to address the other personally.

I’m all for seeing the QT model extended, with other channels doing similar things. But trying to copy presidential debates is a corruption and perversion of a system which is fraught enough as it is. However, the debates seem to be getting one thing right, in giving Nick Clegg equal exposure. Alarmingly, the is at the same time that Question Time is getting this question badly wrong, and dropping the Liberal Democrats with regularity.

Other people have tackled the disastrous timing of these LD-free panels, so I’m going to skip that question. Suffice it to say that to ignore the Lib Dems’ most famous policy stand was never going to be a good decision. No, my point is more fundamental. The BBC claims that the Liberal Democrat, as the third party, do not qualify for as much representation in media. This is a catastrophic failure to understand the role of media in democratic choice.

A level playing field is essential for a good democratic fight. It is, in fact, analogous to the market, and problems of over-large companies. If one company gets too big a share in the market, it is counter-productive to the interests of choice and competition.

The parties do not, in fact, have a huge share of the democratic market, which makes things worse. They are over-represented: whether this is a problem is a whole bigger debate. But the parties, in terms of a proportion of the votes cast, all round together.

This is how a question time panel is divided, whether by accident or design: One representative for the three parties, and two representatives outside of this sphere. The latter represent 40% of the panel, the percentage of the electorate which does not vote, but sometimes minority parties are given a voice, such as the SNP in Scotland, and UKIP in England. Given this, the former can be weighed by the proportion of real votes they get: Labour being roughly 60% of 38% at the moment (<24%), Conservatives being a little under, probably around 20%, and the Liberal Democrats being around 13-14%. As such, the difference between the Liberal Democrats and the “big two” is far less than commonly imagined.

But this is immaterial, anyway. The simple fact is that for the electorate to be presented a serious choice, the main parties must be treated as equals. In an ideal world, this would benefit more than just three parties, but given the politics we have, it is patently clear that the main three parties, which are in most elections far ahead of the others, should be given equal exposure. Otherwise not only does the electoral system conspire against underdog, but the media does as well.

Advertisements
  1. I disagree with you on the value of these debates. But a level playing field is essential and the nationalists must be included.
    http://leftcentral.wordpress.com/2010/04/08/broadcasters-gutles-election-debates/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: