» general election ¦ What You Can Get Away With

electiondebateThe general election debate dance used to be simple. The leader of whichever of the Conservative or Labour partes was trailing in the polls demanded one, then the one who was in the lead hemmed, hawed and put so many conditions in the way of having one that they could never be accused of turning it down, but guaranteed that it would never happen. The leaders of the third and other parties presumably had opinions on this, but as the debates were never a serious proposition, they didn’t get aired, unless their inclusion or not was one of the roadblocks thrown in the way it happened.

Then in 2010, the stars aligned in just the right way and we had our three debates between the leaders of the three leading parties. Understandably, this has created an expectation that they’ll happen again, which would set us off on an even more complicated path of negotiation even without the changes that have happened in politics over the last few years.

In that context, the initial proposal for the debates – a debate with Cameron and Miliband, then a debate with Cameron, Miliband and Clegg, and finally one with Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Farage – would make sense as a wrecking proposal from someone who didn’t really want a debate. It’s bizarrely convoluted, it ignores the Greens, it means each debate is going to end up covering the same ground as the new inclusion in the later debates will want to revisit that and it doesn’t appear to satisfy anyone. Job done, except this came from the broadcasters, not a politician, and I’ve no idea how they managed to come up with such a dog’s breakfast of a proposal.

The key point here is that the broadcasters are in a position of strength as the public will be expecting debates this time, so they’ve got the ‘we’re going ahead with this format, with or without you’ card to play. The public would accept an empty chair, if they think the broadcasters have been fair and it looks like someone being petulant. As it is, this proposed system just guarantees Cameron and Miliband having the same discussion for three weeks, with extra guests being invited to interject on the reruns.

The way I see it, there are five parties that pass the credibility test for being included in a UK-wide debate: they’ve all had MPs and MEPs elected, polls suggest they will get MPs elected at the next election and they’re standing in a majority of the seats at the election. (To the best of my knowledge, no party is intending to stand in all of them) That means debates between the leaders of the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Greens, and the formula should be on the same lines as last time: one on the economy, one on foreign affairs and one on domestic issues. The one thing I would agree with David Cameron on is that because of fixed term parliaments we now know exactly when the election will be, they could be spaced out over a few months before, not all crammed into the campaign. I’d also suggest that similar debates with similar criteria for entry should occur in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and that the broadcasters should commit to showing these across the UK on free-to-air channels.

The debates worked last time because they were simple and everyone could understand what they were about and why the leaders were there. The political system now isn’t quite as simple, but that doesn’t mean we need to add an extra level of complexity into the debates. Three debates, each on a theme, with five leaders at each is the best way of achieving that this time around.

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Amidst all the Jubilee-related snark this long weekend, something caught my eye on Twitter and made me think:

@dontgetfooled If there was a “national interest” argumt for LibDems to coalesce w/ Cameron in 2010 might there be not an equally good one now to quit?

It’s an important question, and one I think Liberal Democrats need to think about and come up with an answer. Even if you say that no, there isn’t a national interest argument for doing that now, then under what circumstances would you consider that there’s a reason for ending the coalition?

Back in 2010, I was at the Special Conference in Birmingham, and I voted for the coalition then. As I said at the time, I think this was a case of the Liberal Democrats finding the least worst option of the various that were being presented at the time. The question we should be asking now is what’s the best – or perhaps again, least worst – option available?

As I see it, there are three broad options available. There’s lots of changeable details within all of them, but it’s simpler to group them into three:

1) Continue in the coalition until 2015. There’s some scope for renegotiation and changing paths within this, especially with Cameron supposedly considering a post-Olympic ministerial reshuffle. The key question that needs to be answered about this option is what will the Government do over the next three years? What changes and reforms will it make that deliver what’s in the national interest, and how will the Liberal Democrats get our key policies delivered in that period? Indeed, give that people boast about how we’ve delivered our four key manifesto promises, what’s left for the Liberal Democrats to do in government, and can it be achieved over those three years?

2) Renegotiate the Coalition as a confidence and supply deal. This goes back to one of the options that wasn’t as credible in 2010 because of the prospect of Cameron cutting and running for a second election after a short time. However, with the passage of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, a confidence and supply deal could now be negotiated. The question then would be what concessions Liberal Democrats could secure while being out of Government but supporting it? What would a minority Conservative Government do that the coalition wouldn’t or couldn’t?

3) Withdraw from the Government, and vote it down with the aim of forcing an early General Election. This is the nuclear option, but it is one that’s available. The key question here is whether we believe that the current Government – or at least the Conservative parts of it – needs to be replaced entirely and following on from that, whether the election would produce a better Government.

I would say that my inclination at the moment would be towards option 1 or 2, as 3 is really wandering off the map into uncharted territory, not least because Labour’s current policy on most issues appears to be ‘I’m not sure what we’d do, but it wouldn’t be that’. However, I want to hear Liberal Democrat ministers and MPs coming out and saying just what they’re looking to achieve over the rest of this Government, and how they’re going to get our policies enacted, and not just crow in triumph every time they’ve diluted a Tory policy a little. I also want to know that the members of the party are going to be listened to, and not dismissed as an irrelevance getting in the way of governance.

It’s over two years since Gordon Brown left office, and I don’t want to hear Liberal Democrats still chanting ‘sorting out Labour’s mess’ as though it’s a mantra that excuses everything. We know they were bad, but if you want to continue in Government, you need to be telling us why you’re better.

But what do you think? Which option’s your best/least worst? How should we be proceeding over the next three months or three years?

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There used to be a set procedure for discussing a leaders’ debate in General Elections: the leader of the opposition would propose it a couple of months before the election, the Prime Minister would say nothing but their spokespeople would umm and ahh over it, the leader(s) of the third party would then chime in and demand to be involved, various possible conditions for a debate that no one could agree on would be floated around, and then the whole idea would just wither away as the election campaign itself took over the headlines.

Now, it seems that we’re actually going to get not just one, but three, with Brown, Cameron and Clegg involved in all of them. Given that Sky have pledged to ‘empty chair’ anyone who doesn’t want a debate, and that the three broadcasters have agreed to co-operate on this, it’s hard to see how anyone can get out of it now that it has a momentum.

So now, I find myself wondering what they’ll be like. Someone at ITV is probably trying to work out if there’s a way to get Cheryl Cole and/or Simon Cowell as the moderator for their debate, while I also expect that someone at the BBC is hard at work on a way to involve Twitter, Facebook and whatever internet fad emerges over the next six months in the process as part of their usual down-with-the-kids attempt to look ‘relevant’. As his contract seems to require him to appear on every BBC programme at some point, I wouldn’t rule out John Barrowman as the moderator either.

In fact, it might well be Sky that stage the most traditional and ‘dull’ debate, with Adam Boulton asking carefully neutral questions, while the three leaders stand behind their podiums to answer. They’ve got their triumph by making these debates happen, and Sky One/Sky News is guaranteed one of its largest ever audiences, with no need for gimmicks. They get bracketed as one of the UK’s key broadcasters alongside the BBC and ITV, clips from their debate (with their logo stuck on) will get shown on the news and in the papers regardless of what they do, so why take risks? Leave that to the others, and instead just sit back and enjoy the ratings.

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The whole ‘save General Election night’ thing appears to be getting the full allocation of its nine-days-wonder (and will no doubt get the same when the actual election comes) but while it fails to generate any real excitement in me, a thought:

Why isn’t the public announcement of election results actually public anymore in so many places?

Obviously, many declarations can be seen by the public on TV, or heard on the radio, but from my recollection of most recent elections, the actual declaration takes place in the same venue the count was taking place which usually isn’t open to the public. Just think of all the declarations you’ve seen in recent years, and I’m sure they’ll all have been in made in some municipal leisure centre to crowds consisting entirely of party workers who’ve been up all night.

Think back to years ago, though, when the public declaration usually was public, with the Mayor and candidates cramming onto a balcony of the Town Hall while a crowd below eagerly awaited hearing the result for the first time. That was when election nights were something for the people, because that was when the entire process wasn’t shut away from them. Talk of ‘saving’ general election night seems to be a bit late, given that the magic went long ago for the majority of the people.

Mark Pack (here and here) and Costigan Quist have both been talking about this Sunday Times story about a ‘threat’ to ‘General Election night’. In short, it seems that more Councils are planning to delay counting general election votes from the night of the election until the day after in order to save money.

Yes, the Sunday Times (and assorted members of all parties, it seems) have decided that this instance of Councils saving money is apparently a bad thing. (As a disclaimer, I don’t know what Colchester is planning, but we did count the most recent County elections on a Friday and the sky resolutely refused to fall) In a time when there’s pressure on Councils to justify every penny they spend, having to pay out large sums to get people to work through the middle of the night is an obvious place to make a saving, especially when delaying the count for twelve hours or so will make no material difference to the result. Perhaps if broadcasters and others are so desperate to have the results on a Thursday night – though I’m quite sure they would easily adapt to a change – they’d be willing to pay the extra costs of it.

(Indeed, if you wanted to be truly free-market about it, Sky News, ITV and the papers could compete for results and sponsorship, paying for extra counters in key seats in exchange for their logo appearing behind the returning officer when they result is declared.)

I’m broadly in agreement with Costigan over this one – when there’s so much else wrong with our electoral system, trying to make a big campaign out of this strikes me as a bit pointless. Following the example of other countries and holding elections on Sundays seems like a much better idea to me, and it would be interesting if some Councils were allowed to trial that as an experiment to see what extra costs it incurs and what the effect on turnout would be. For me, increasing turnout is a much more effective use of spending a limited election budget than increasing the speed of the result.

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