Mark Brophy

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New Political Landscape extends beyond TV debates

Plans for the pre-general Election 2015 leadership TV debates have just been made public and much has been made of the fact that Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, has been included in the proposals to take part in one of them. The traditional 3 main parties plus UKIP would be the only ones involved under the plans. With only 1 MP, and such a recent one that Douglas Carswell had not had time to be sworn in before the news broke, why was UKIP to be included ahead of the Green party who have had an MP since 2010? For that matter, it’s also worth wondering why they would be included in the debates ahead of any of the 9 parties with representation in the House of Commons who have been overlooked.

It’s fairly transparent why the broadcasters would want things the way they’ve suggested; a TV debate between 13 parties would be in danger of being unwatchable. Never let it be said that our broadcasters are looking for a fair and balanced series of debates which allow all parties to get their point across. Like all our news media they are already pursuing the particular narrative which they perceive will be the big story of the coming election, the rise of UKIP as a major political force. They’ve been doing it for some time now. They cover it because it interests them, it gives them something to talk about, to fill up the endless hours of coverage. But because they keep covering the story it becomes ever more likely to come true. Without the seemingly endless and up to now disproportionate coverage of UKIP and Nigel Farage, would they have made the inroads they have done already? The advantage they’ve gained is perhaps more clearly seen if we put it the other way round: it’s impossible for a party to have electoral success on a large scale without similarly widespread exposure on national TV. Such has the boost been to UKIP’s electoral prospects that they are being spoken of as a genuine 4th major party, and that they have broken the 3-party system which has been our political landscape since the birth of the Labour Party in the early years of the last century.

The shrinking popularity and disillusionment with Labour, Tories and Lib Dems mean that our 3-party system and in particular our First-Past-The-Post electoral voting system are appearing more and more outdated and unrepresentative and in that context representation in TV debates seems very small beer. I’d argue that rather than simply moving to a 4-party system we are now in an age of genuine multi-party politics, but that isn’t reflected by our electoral system. Again, it’s clear why traditional parties would wish to maintain the current system. It sustains them, and holds back possible competition. Because of FPTP, Labour have been able to move away from the concerns of their traditional support base without losing seats. Enough people will vote for them in their heartlands no matter what that for over a decade they’ve felt able to allow the centre of national political debate to shift to the right, to the chagrin of many who feel deserted by Labour’s refusal to oppose what has therefore become the political consensus. Despite the calls of “Red Ed” and Labour undoubtedly attempting to appeal more to their core recently, the number of Blairites still influencing the party mean it’s unlikely to go further. Most of the people left behind by this have no-one electable to the left of Labour who they can vote for as things stand; in 99% of constituencies a vote for a non-Labour party of the left will not result in them winning a seat, and that vote is effectively pointless. Indeed, for some time the Lib Dem electoral strategy has been that “Party A cannot win here; Only the Lib Dems can stop Party B in this constituency”, the identities of parties A & B of course being switchable according to the realities on the ground. The abhorrence of tactical voting seems to have been lost in all this. The idea that people feel forced to vote for someone they don’t support merely to prevent someone else winning who they think is even worse should be anathema to anyone who believes in popular representation. Why can’t my vote for a party in Newcastle be pooled with that of a fellow-supporter on the South coast, both of us safe in the knowledge that our votes will not be wasted?

The Lib Dems appear to be about to pass on their status as the national party of tactical voters to UKIP anyway. Despite their manifest failures in government, the Lib Dems at least attempt to position themselves between Labour and Conservatives and so by default are a lesser evil than the other of the 3 to supporters stranded in an unwinnable seat for their party of choice. UKIP by contrast set themselves to the right of the Tories. I just can’t see Labour supporters voting en masse for UKIP in marginals ( though some will of course), especially when they have already stated they’ll support a minority Tory government in return for concessions.

It’s a staple of political strategy that 35% or so of the vote would be sufficient for Labour to gain an overall majority, not much more than that for the Tories to do the same. Could it be that if tactical voting no longer took place, not only would the vote of the 3rd party be reduced, but that of Labour & Conservatives as well? People who were disillusioned with the traditional party of left or right would no longer feel the need to vote for them rather than risk the other winning. Minor parties could be expected to hold the major party of their side of the debate to account in  coalition government. Unlike the Lib Dems (who may be wiped from the political scene next time) they’d be sharing power with a dominant partner whose broad programme wasn’t too far from their own. It’s a vision of fragmentation, yes, but one of political engagement too, where people vote for parties they agree with and gain outcomes they approve of. It can only be achieved by ditching our electoral system. The self-interest inherent in the major parties wishing to maintain the status quo means they cannot be left to decide on what will happen. The only acceptable ongoing process would be for an independent body to decide on options for changes to the electoral system, and then put it to the nation. Maybe they can debate that on TV.

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