As we read about the tussle over the ‘Leaders Debates’ it would be useful to recap how we got here. In the 16th Century Political Parties were created to allow individual MPs to work together to challenge the King. At the beginning of the 20th Century the emerging 2.5 party system was well equipped to enable you and I to understand how the parties differed from one another and how we should vote, just in time for you and I to gain the right to vote. By the end of the 20th Century the number of Political Parties had expanded in an exponential fashion but outside of the European Parliament there had been no change to the Parliamentary make up with 2.5 parties operating more or less alone in Westminster. However the growth in some of the newer parties was beginning to stretch the envelope of what the parties are supposed to be about. Are they meant to promote their party members in elections and hold them to account, with some reference to policy positions, or are they intended to promote policies and as part of that ensure that people who believe in these policies are elected to represent people who choose to vote for those policies.
If the primary focus is on the party and their wellbeing, then changing policy every so often to suit the electorate is perfectly legitimate and collaboration should be seen as a last resort, providing they can get their party into power. On the other hand if the primary focus is on policies, then collaboration is to be welcomed if it achieves the objectives set out by the party and differentiation is only appropriate or necessary in the areas where parties differ. It is vital that each of the parties determines what its primary purpose is and then make that clear to those of us who might vote for them. Only a dishonest political party would claim to be about improving the prospects for small business, if they then rubbished the good work being carried out by another party to help business. If their primary focus is to elect their members, then they might see small businesses as core supporters and adjust their policies accordingly, but they cannot ultimately serve both the party and people who might support them. In theory a manifesto by a party focused on policies will be strong on the ideas and welcome working with other agencies to get the job done and one that is focused on the party will be superficial in policy content but strong on brand image and the colour of the rosettes in the photos.
Although the UK leaders debates are modelled on the American Presidential debates, they of course are very different, the mechanism for electing a Prime Minister is rather convoluted. Historically the party which wins the election gets its leader as PM providing they are elected within their own constituency (safe seats constituencies usually ensure this). However if the Lib Dems had entered into a coalition with Labour in 2010 it is widely recognised that Brown would not have been the Prime Minister, and neither would Clegg, but Clegg would have been the deputy PM as he is now. To date there has been only one set of debates and the decision to include Nick Clegg at the time of the last election was a relatively easy one. He had no chance of becoming Prime Minister but to have had head to head debates between Brown and Cameron would not have been as interesting. We now face a diminished Lib Dem party with a leader whose own re-election is far from certain and two more parties with MPs in Parliament who will be represented in any debates by people who have never been an MP and whose prospect of election is extremely uncertain to say the least. Even if we had a debate between Cameron and Miliband assuming there is a coalition result at the General Election the decision regarding who the next Prime Minister is will depend as much on the views of the minor parties as the current leader of the largest party.
I would like to see a debate between the major parties to find out what their ideas and policies are. I am much less concerned about who speaks for each party and I certainly don’t have any interest in seeing 5 or more different talking heads explaining that they are good and the other 4 are bad. As I have written previously I strongly believe the Greens should be represented but I also don’t necessarily want to see the same debate 3 times. I think Ofcom are wrong in their judgement that the Greens are not a major party in the UK terms, or perhaps they are judging the wrong things. If a Political Party will put up candidates in a large number of seats, and has some evidence of its electoral capacity then it is as significant as the Lib Dems were in 2010. Clearly only two parties stand any real prospect of holding the largest number of seats, so in that case only Labour and Conservatives are major parties. However more importantly it is time for the parties to decide if they are focused on policies (which I would find interesting) or tribal identity which I can participate in through watching football if that was what I wanted.