A major decision was made last week which could decide next year’s General Election in the UK. The main broadcasters are planning to exclude the Green Party from the televised election debates in 2015 – while including Nigel Farage’s hard-right UK Independence Party and the diminishing Liberal Democrats.
The decision has led to outrage from across the political spectrum, with threats of a legal challenge by several of the excluded parties.
Despite being well established in many European countries, TV debates are a new phenomena in UK politics – making it perhaps more essential they are conducted fairly from the outset.
The plan to exclude the Greens therefore appears quite disgraceful, particularly after analysing the level of representation, support, and the need for a plurality of views. It’s important to analyse the arguments against what has been dubbed a ‘media blackout‘.
There are two ways in which broadcasters might determine whether a party should be take part in the election debates. First, by the level of representation the party enjoys.
The Greens have the same number of MPs as UKIP – one. The party has also held it for far longer than UKIP’s Douglas Carswell, a recent Tory defector: Brighton’s Caroline Lucas won her seat in 2010 and has proved a formidable force in Parliament, and popular among the public.
Including the separate Scottish Greens, the party also has two MSPs in the Scottish Parliament (that’s two more than UKIP), and three MEPs (many fewer than UKIP’s 24, but triple the Lib Dems’ single member), as well as coming third in the last London mayoral election.
In local authorities the Greens have 170 principal authority councillors across England and Wales, including two London Assembly members, and 14 councillors in Scotland. That’s not as many as UKIP with its 357 councillors, but still an impressive number that demonstrates broad-based, nationwide support.
Visible popular support
The other reasonable way to judge whether a party should participate in election debates is to go by the level of support that seems likely in future elections, based both on recent election outcomes, and opinion polls.
In the European elections UKIP came first 27.5% of the vote. But the Greens came in fourth place with 7.9%, a percentage point ahead of the Lib Dems with their 6.9%. The Greens attracted the votes of 1,255,573 people across the UK.
As for the opinion polls for the 2015 General Election, many show the Greens equal with the Lib Dems, at around 5-7%. This follows monumental growth in membership over the past five years, including a 56% boost in 2014 alone to over 21,000 members, and 1,000 new members in the last week. Including the Scottish Greens, the party is now fast on its way to 30,000 members, boosted by the growing popularity of the Young Greens.
In short, all the numbers show that the Greens represent a broad, substantial, nationwide constituency of progressive voters that are turning out to support us in elections in growing numbers.
Moreover, in 2015, many more will have the change to vote Green, with the Party contesting three quarters of UK constituencies – up 50% from 2010.
An attack on democracy
But of course, the numbers don’t say it all. What is really at issue is the exclusion of choice – an attack on the principle of democracy. If Nigel Farage appears without the Greens, the TV debates will be between four pro-austerity parties battling over the same political ground. The phrase ‘sham election’ comes to mind.
It will also be composed of four parties who support fracking, who back ‘free trade’ deals like TTIP that threaten health and environmental protections, who advocate either grossly insufficient measures to tackle the enormous reality of global warming or (in the case of UKIP) deny it altogether.
Only the Greens are challenging the neoliberal ‘free market’ consensus of the ‘grey’ parties – therefore, without a strong Green voice being heard in the debates, the debates will amount to an establishment stitch-up. It’s vital that the thousands, if not millions, of Green voters – or potential supporters – are represented.
Instead, next year’s TV debates could be an insult to the millions seeking a progressive political voice, and politics will only be the worse off for it in an era of alienation and disenfranchisement.
This is not a mere complaint – the Greens are not trying to deny UKIP or the Lib Dems their right to be heard. Both the Scottish National Party and Wales’ Plaid Cymru, who enjoy significant levels of support, should also be included. Democracy isn’t just about who you vote for – it’s about representation. That has to include Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The new political reality
Siobhan MacMahon, Co-Chair of the Young Greens, has argued rightly that: “The obvious truth from the proposed TV debates is that broadcasters are struggling to adapt to the new political reality that we face in the UK, with five or more parties all staking legitimate claims to featuring in the debate.
“The Greens have been unfairly excluded from that process, despite receiving over a million votes in the European Elections and beating the Lib Dems into fourth place.”
In response, the Young Greens – as well as calling for fair debates – are calling for a series of youth debates among young party leaders from across the spectrum. With the Greens becoming the third party of young people, polling around 15% and doubling in size in 2014 alone, they are in a good place to pioneer such calls for experimentation in democracy.
The debates could be online – via newspapers, YouTube and other media – as well as on radio or TV. Nothing is written in stone. What is right is that they should happen. Young people deserve a voice too as those who will clear up the mess of the current lot in power.
Needless to say, the fact that over 170,000 have signed a petition calling for broader party representation on the TV debates shows just how strongly people feel. What will become of politics if they are ignored?
It’s not just them who will feel ignored however – a YouGov poll showed that 60% of voters agree that the Green Party Leader, Natalie Bennett, should be included in the debates. In such a context, it becomes difficult to conceive how broadcasters – include the state-owned BBC – could justify holding a solely centre/right debate.
Greens across many parts of Europe understand the ramifications and realities of a lack of media coverage. Yet despite the lack of a proportional electoral system, Britain is now a multi-party country. It is time the media realised this fact.
A version of this article was originally published in the Ecologist magazine