After the debacle of the rigged 2010 leaders' debates (which not only saw the SNP and Plaid Cymru totally excluded but also saw their voters literally banned from being part of the audiences!), there were signs that one or two of the more thoughtful broadcasters realised that an Anglocentric framework had let viewers down badly and couldn't be sustained in future elections. Sky's Adam Boulton, for instance, wrote a very good article reflecting on how the debates had totally dominated the campaign to the exclusion of everything else, and proposed that in the interests of fairness the SNP should be given some form of involvement in at least one debate next time around. Well, those good intentions seem to have gone completely out of the window. The joint proposal that has just been released is as follows -
A Sky/Channel 4 debate hosted by Jeremy Paxman and Kay Burley (why not chuck in David Starkey and make our lives complete?), featuring the Conservatives and Labour only.
A BBC debate hosted by David Dimbleby, featuring the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats only.
An ITV debate hosted by Julie Etchingham, featuring the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP only.
Once again, the SNP (who have had continuous parliamentary representation since 1967) and Plaid Cymru (who have had continuous parliamentary representation since 1974) are being invited to accept that they should be completely excluded from debates for a parliamentary election.
Let's be clear about this - there is no such thing as a 'national party' in the UK, so that type of excuse for excluding parties who you think your London audiences will find boring doesn't work. The UK has four constituent nations, and there is no party - not one - that has MPs in all four. Three parties have representation in three of the four nations, the SNP and Plaid between them (who form a single parliamentary group in Westminster) have representation in two of the four nations, while UKIP have representation in just one nation - as do the Greens. How exactly do we get from that state of affairs to the inclusion of UKIP and the exclusion of the SNP, Plaid and the Greens?
Nor does an excuse about "at least standing candidates throughout the country" work, because Labour and the Liberal Democrats do not stand candidates in Northern Ireland. And nor does an excuse about "standing enough candidates for your leader to become PM" work, because in a parliamentary system a party participating in a complex coalition can supply the Prime Minister even with a tiny minority of seats - there are numerous examples of that happening throughout the world. And that's before we even get to the inconvenient fact that the SNP are now the third biggest party in the UK, with far more members than either the Liberal Democrats or UKIP.
I presume the proposed Cameron v Miliband head-to-head debate would take place before the official campaign period, otherwise by definition it would fall foul of the broadcasting regulations. But it wouldn't surprise me if the debate involving UKIP is being pencilled in for a date closer to the election, in which case the broadcasters are getting into very dangerous territory - including UKIP on the basis of one or perhaps two MPs, but excluding the SNP and Plaid on the basis of nine MPs. To adapt George Bush Senior's words after the invasion of Kuwait, "this must not stand". Mass complaints to the broadcasters are probably now in order, and perhaps even an early legal challenge if the SNP are shut out of the negotiations.