UK posturing over TV debates may be a taste of what we can expect here

Prime Minister David Cameron says he will only participate in TV election debates if the Greens and perhaps the Scottish National Party are invited to participate. –  Photo.  PA Wire

Prime Minister David Cameron says he will only participate in TV election debates if the Greens and perhaps the Scottish National Party are invited to participate. – Photo. PA Wire


Unlike us, the British know when their next election is going to be. The lifetime of each Westminster parliament is now fixed by statute and the election will be on May 7th. It will be useful over the next 14 weeks to cast an occasional eye at how the British election campaign is progressing if only because aspects of it may foreshadow our own election, whenever that comes.

There are differences in the two marketplaces. The systems are different: they operate the first-past-the-post electoral system while we have proportional representation through the single transferable vote. Some of the issues will be different. Immigration will feature prominently in the British election but will matter much less here.

There are similarities too, however. The recession in Britain that shaped their election in 2010 was a pale shadow of the one that determined ours in 2011. However, there, as here, the incumbent coalition government will be seeking to talk up its achievement in ensuring economic recovery.

Fragmenting system

Green Party

It is interesting to see the extent to which this fragmentation is posing challenges for broadcasters in Britain similar to those which Irish broadcasters will face later this year or early next year.

Coverage of politics in the British media this week has been dominated by stories about whether there will be a leaders’ debate. The 2010 election saw Britain’s first televised debates by political leaders. More than 22 million people watched the three debates between Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg. This time around, Cameron is ducking debates.

What is particularly interesting is the role British broadcasting regulator Ofcom is playing. Ofcom decides which parties are “major political parties” for broadcasting purposes. In its initial consideration it designated the Conservatives, the Labour Party, the Liberals and Ukip as such. The designation of Ukip as major is obviously controversial but reflects its strength in the recent local and European elections and the 13 per cent-plus vote share it has achieved in recent polls.

In the light of Ofcom’s designation the British television stations have jointly proposed a series of debates on three consecutive Thursdays in April: a head-to- head between Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband; a three-way debate involving them and the Liberal leader Nick Clegg; and a final, four-leader debate in which Ukip’s Nigel Farage would also be involved.

Cameron has said, however, he will not participate unless the Green Party leader and perhaps the Scottish National Party are included. Most see it as a ruse to avoid debates altogether.

RTÉ, TV3, TG4 and UTV Ireland will have to contend with a debate-shy Taoiseach when our election comes. In shaping any debate proposals the stations will have to incorporate the Tánaiste and both Opposition party leaders within the programmes. Above all else they will have to decide how to reflect the rise of new political parties or alliances of Independents.

Rise of I

ndependents One wonders, for example,

whether Lucinda Creighton and Shane Ross would find themselves included in leaders’ debates if their new entities get traction in the polls. Indeed the question arises as to whether the rise of Independents might even undermine the credibility of holding party leaders’ debates at all.

At the same time any election debate between alternative taoisigh would be complicated. As the polls currently stand, Enda Kenny, Micheál Martin and Gerry Adams could each credibly claim some prospect of leading the largest Dáil party after the next election.

The provision of time for party political broadcasts will also prove more problematic given the emergence of new entities. Traditionally, RTÉ allocated these on the crude basis of vote share in the previous general election. Even in 1987, after the Progressive Democrats had emerged, RTÉ allocated them such a broadcast based on the vote secured in the November 1982 election by the sitting TDs who had joined the party.

In Britain the regulator has also got involved to assist the broadcasters on these types of decisions. Ofcom guidelines require that the four major parties must get free broadcasts on English channels, while larger parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland get it on channels in those areas.

Watching how some of these matters are dealt with in the British election could usefully inform debate about how they should be resolved here.