What is a ‘major’ party?

Televised debates for general elections are a relatively new phenomenon in the UK. The first such spectacles were held in advance of the 2010 election. Critics of the process, including David Cameron, claim it took attention away from the rest of the campaign, such as grassroots efforts and visits and set-piece speeches by frontbenchers and party dignitaries. However, there is no doubt it created a buzz: 9.4m viewers watched the first debate, beating both EastEnders andCoronation Street. John Ryley, head of Sky News, said the debates had ‘struck a chord with the British public and energised the election campaign’.

So it seems almost unthinkable for this successful experiment not to be repeated this time around. In spite of this previous success, Cameron came out at the end of last week, saying he would not take part in TV debates unless the Greens are included. In response, the leaders of the three other invited parties have written to David Cameron threatening to empty-chair him if he refuses to take part.

Which parties should be included, and the appropriate criteria for such decisions, are not clear cut issues. Ofcom have made an effort to be transparent in their latest decision process on which parties should be designated as Major Parties, including a consultation that is open until 5 February. However, while they have indicated the kinds of evidence they use to make a decision (past electoral support and current support based on polling), there are no clear thresholds or formulae. Moreover, there is no requirement of the broadcasters to base their debate invitations on Ofcom rulings.

This makes it very difficult for anyone to dispassionately determine who should be invited. The Greens have had an MP since 2010 (UKIP gained their first elected MP in October, just four days before the 2-3-4 proposal was first announced by the broadcasters). The Greens fight elections on a UK-wide scale, unlike the SNP or Plaid. They are currently polling at around 7 per cent, often close to or level with the Lib Dems, and their membership numbers have caught up with both UKIP and the Lib Dems, and could surpass them by polling day. A recent poll indicates the public overwhelmingly back the Greens’ involvement.

On the other hand, polling at 7 per cent before the start of the short campaign is hardly a ringing endorsement for a party of protest; they could well be squeezed back down to typical levels before May. Of the twenty-one Westminster by-elections since 2010, they’ve lost their deposit in twelve and failed to put up a candidate for the other nine. They might retain their one seat, but so might George Galloway, and no-one is calling for him to be included.

The Greens’ electoral success or failure may affect the outcome in a few other seats, such as Norwich South, but their impact will certainly be felt in fewer seats than the SNP. They will run candidates in just enough seats to be considered a UK-wide party, but their support is concentrated in a few geographic areas, which total a much smaller proportion of the UK than the areas in which the SNP genuinely compete.

From a common sense, and perhaps more emotional, point of view, I can see the virtues of having the Greens on the stage. They will add diversity and balance to the range of platforms on offer, and avert the depressing predictability of a panel made up solely of white, middle class men. However, according to reasonable criteria upon which one would hope such decisions would be made, it seems that both the broadcasters and Ofcom, who are likely to designate UKIP as a Major Party, but not the Greens, have got it about right. It’s certainly not an obvious decision either way.

Whether the broadcasters, following Ofcom’s statement on UKIP, have come to the right decision or not, Cameron is able to protest because we still don’t really know on what basis the decision was made. If the Greens were 5 points higher in the polls, or had won a couple of recent by-elections, would they also be designated a Major Party? If so, would the broadcasters have invited them to the debates? The fact that they don’t know what they need to achieve makes the result harder to swallow, and gives Cameron an out.

In particular, with the debates, I wonder if UKIP and the Greens’ fortunes were reversed, whether the same decision would have been reached. The broadcasters may well have been more tempted to include Farage on the basis of his ‘character’ than they are now with Natalie Bennett, as he might have pulled in extra viewers.

Given how important the debates are, and how carefully other aspects of election coverage are regulated to ensure fairness, we need decisions like this to be made more formally and more transparently. It seems strange that Ofcom decisions on Major Party status affect the number of political broadcasts a party can have, which matter very little, but have no official bearing on debate invitations, which clearly do matter.

Broadcasters themselves need to show how they make these kinds of decisions so that it can be scrutinised, and we can be sure parties and their leaders are invited according to objective criteria, not how their presence might improve ratings (as is likely in the case of Farage). Of course, such criteria can be challenged, but if they are known well in advance of the invitations being sent out, there can be little cause for complaint at the time. (And to be fair, the BBC Trust will publish a report to provide insight into their rationale next week, according to Nick Robinson).

In the absence of a formal mechanism, whether by Ofcom or the broadcasters, we will continue to get this ‘will they, won’t they’ speculation every election cycle, which does nothing for the political establishment’s standing. A clear, trusted rationale for invitees would put a stop this wrangling once and for all.