Of the many reprehensible things about the broadcasters' proposal to ban the SNP and Plaid Cymru from the TV leaders' debates, and indeed to ban them from even taking part in the negotiations about the debates, the most disgraceful of all is the fact that it is based on no objective criteria whatever. In fact, the polar opposite is true - we have evidence that their starting-point is that the SNP and Plaid must be excluded ("why, the idea is patently absurd, Felicity!"), and that they work backwards from there to come up with a justification that fits. It doesn't matter a damn to them what that justification is, or whether it is logically consistent with the other excuses they've used in similar situations in the past. Last time around, Michael Crick (who was still with the BBC) openly admitted that the whole "Prime Ministerial Debate" wheeze was specifically concocted as a thin excuse to bar the door to the nationalist parties - if the debates had been billed as parliamentary leaders' debates (which is self-evidently what they actually were) it would have been much harder to explain away the absence of parties that have enjoyed unbroken representation in the House of Commons for decades. Well, they've had to dilute the Prime Ministerial cover story this time to accommodate their beloved Nigel Farage, so what excuse are they left with now? As of this moment, they just appear to be waffling, and hoping desperately that people will get used to the idea of the exclusion as a "normal" thing.
At the very least, the broadcasters must now be forced to set out firm criteria (which will not be conveniently altered in future) that the SNP and Plaid Cymru can meet to secure representation in the debates - and I do mean the real debates, not Mickey Mouse second-string debates which nobody pays a blind bit of attention to. Is there a magic number of candidates that they must put up? If so, what is that number? 200? 350? If they could be guaranteed access to the debates with a specific number, I'm sure they would consider working together (perhaps with the aid of a dedicated fundraiser) to put up candidates in parts of England - the required deposit per constituency is £500, so the money involved would be significant, but not impossibly high. It's certainly hard to see what additional hoops they could be expected to jump through beyond the number of candidates - the number of currently-held parliamentary seats can't be an issue, because between them they already have nine times as many seats as UKIP (who are pencilled in for inclusion in one debate), and nor can opinion poll support throughout Great Britain be an issue, because the 5% they have been getting in many recent opinion polls is in the same ballpark as the 6-9% enjoyed by the Lib Dems (who are pencilled in for inclusion in two debates).
But even if it is going to be one law for some (London-based) parties and another law for (non-London-based) others, there still does need to be clarity. For example...
The SNP have six times as many seats in the House of Commons as UKIP. If they had twelve times as many, would that be enough?
The SNP are the third-biggest party in the entire UK, with far more members than either the Liberal Democrats or UKIP. If they were the second-biggest party, would that be enough?
The SNP currently hold the lead in Scottish voting intentions for Westminster. If their lead over Labour was even bigger, would that be enough?
The SNP are currently projected to be ahead of UKIP as the fourth-largest party (at least) in the House of Commons after the general election, according to all Britain-wide opinion polls other than one. If they were projected to be ahead of the Lib Dems as well as UKIP, would that be enough?
Tell us, London broadcasters : would anything ever be enough for a Jock party? You'll have to forgive our scepticism.
The reason why this matters is illustrated perfectly by the latest update of the Scot Goes Pop Poll of Polls, which is based on the Scottish subsamples from the nine GB-wide polls that have been conducted entirely within the last seven days and for which datasets have been provided - three from YouGov, two from Populus, two from Ashcroft, one from Survation and one from ICM.
Scottish voting intentions for the May 2015 UK general election :
SNP 42.8% (+1.8)
Labour 27.0% (-0.4)
Conservatives 15.7% (-1.9)
Liberal Democrats 7.0% (-0.2)
UKIP 4.3% (+0.9)
Greens 2.1% (-0.7)
It's easy to look at these figures and conclude (as someone did on Twitter a couple of hours ago) that Scotland now constitutes a different polity from the rest of the UK. But if you think for one moment that the SNP's lead is strong enough to withstand the broadcasters' Grand Exclusion Strategy, then you're dreaming. Consider the one previous occasion when the SNP broke through the 30% barrier in a Westminster general election, in October 1974. Do you think they would have had a cat in hell's chance of achieving that result if the run-up to the election had been punctuated by three leaders' debates between Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and Jeremy Thorpe? Of course not. The momentum would have drained away. The message sent out to viewers would have been : "The party you're thinking of voting for is not a serious party. They're not part of the real contest. Forget about them, and think about one of the main options instead."
On the morning after the referendum, I suggested that the broadcasters hadn't simply predicted the result, but had authored it. (The glorious irony of the running vote tallies being projected onto Pacific Quay will live long in the memory.) But their active participation in the London establishment's 'shock and awe' campaign during the referendum was positively subtle compared to the straightforward cause-and-effect of depressing the SNP vote in a general election by leaving them out of the debates - we saw how the party slumped in the opinion polls immediately after the first debate in 2010. The broadcasters might as well be saying "we don't like the Scottish result currently suggested by the opinion polls, so we'll shape a result more to our taste instead".
Broadcasters are there to facilitate democratic debate, not to shape election results. It is no part of their business to arbitrarily decide that a ceiling will be permanently placed on the support of any party that does not stand candidates in England. This little game must be stopped.