Thursday, April 15, 2010

The crossing of a dangerous threshold

So the dark day has arrived. Rather than simply preaching to the (mostly) converted here, I thought I'd sum up my thoughts in the following piece that I've posted both on Nick Robinson's blog and on the Guardian website. It's in slightly abbreviated form at the Guardian due to a character limit.

"The British political process will tonight cross a very dangerous threshold. It’s long been recognised by international scrutinising bodies that, for an election to be deemed free and fair, it’s not sufficient for there to be, for example, no bar on candidates putting themselves forward, and for the principles of a secret ballot to be immaculately respected at the polling stations. In the modern world these nominal freedoms count for nothing if the powers that be allow only a select few participants to put their case on the broadcast media, with publicity for all the others choked off. The process we’re about to see unfold tonight and on subsequent Thursdays is much more redolent of what passes for ‘democracy’ in certain former Soviet republics than it is of the principles of ‘fair play’ that we are constantly told underpin the British system.

Imagine for a moment that you’re a Martian, and having tasted the warmer climes of Russia for a few years you’ve just decided to make a new home for yourself in the even warmer climes of the Ceredigion constituency. You’ve just got your head round the idea that the local choice amounts to a straight battle between the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru. What, then, are you to make of the debate tonight? It’s difficult to reach any other conclusion than that the broadcasters think that only one of the two main choices in the constituency is even worthy of your consideration – the other one might as well not exist. But, of course, you won’t find this unsubtle attempt to ‘guide’ the voters towards the ‘right’ decision so strange – because you’ve seen it all before in the last set of Russian elections.

To be clear, the broadcasters are not simply ‘following orders’ from the three London-based parties as they might do in an ex-Soviet republic. But what there certainly is at play here is a conspiracy of massive shared self-interest between the broadcasters and the three London parties. The broadcasters recognised at a very early stage the potential ratings bonanza these debates represented, and were prepared to do almost anything to ensure they went ahead. As it swiftly became clear that the London parties would take their ball away and refuse to play if they were forced to share a platform with alternative voices, the broadcasters were more than happy to be their servants in ensuring those alternative voices were silenced at all costs. Michael Crick gave the game away several weeks ago when he revealed that the very name ‘Prime Ministerial Debates’ had only been dreamed up by the broadcasters as a wheeze to attempt to justify the exclusion of the SNP and Plaid Cymru.

So there it is in a nutshell – the broadcasters in an alleged western democracy working on behalf of a select group of political parties to help them defeat their opponents. Every time the words ‘Prime Ministerial Debate’ are uttered by Alastair Stewart tonight, I hope every TV boss involved in this shameful exercise quietly winces, because that phrase will forever symbolise just how far the broadcasters have abdicated their proper role in the election process of illuminating the full range of choices before the electorate, without fear or favour.

As far as I can see, the only conceivable justification for excluding parties from TV coverage is that they are thorough-going fringe parties, meaning they have failed to demonstrate that they have any realistic hope at all of success at the election – which in a parliamentary election means hope of winning seats in parliament. The SNP have had continuous representation in parliament since 1967, and Plaid Cymru since 1974. Parties representing no fewer than 31 of the 646 seats in parliament prior to dissolution will be banned from participating tonight. The proposition that these parties have no stake in this election is risible and offensive, and yet that is the proposition upon which tonight’s broadcast will be based.

Oh, and before anyone responds to my Ceredigion example by suggesting that the leader of Plaid Cymru has no chance of becoming Prime Minister, in point of fact both the leading candidates in that constituency are in precisely the same boat. Both their parties’ parliamentary leaders theoretically COULD become PM (there are numerous examples both in Britain and around the world of parties supplying the head of government while being well short of a majority of seats), but in practice everyone knows neither will. In any case, the post of Prime Minister will not be on the ballot paper in Ceredigion, but the post of member of parliament for Ceredigion will be. It seems the powers that be have already decided for the voters what the result of that particular election should be.

Talking of who is and who isn’t on the ballot paper, none of the three parties lucky enough to be represented tonight are on the ballot in every constituency in the UK – the Conservatives are missing in two constituencies, while Labour and the Lib Dems are absent in no fewer than nineteen apiece. If Liam Byrne’s strictures on Question Time a few weeks ago were being followed to the letter, there would in fact be an empty platform tonight – because apparently participation in these debates is appropriate only for leaders of parties ‘standing in every single seat’."

I'm searching for a silver lining, and apart from the SNP's excellent PEB tonight the best one I can think of is the stiff competition the TV debate is facing from the schedulers on the other side - not just Have I Got News For You but also Outnumbered, which as far as I can remember is the only genuinely funny sitcom (for a family audience) Britain has produced in the last five years.

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