Tortured. That’s the only adjective for the ongoing negotiations over the TV election debates. This morning Radio 4 had Michael Grade (former BBC chairman) chastising the broadcasters for throwing their weight around by threatening to “empty chair” Cameron, who is refusing to engage in the format they have suggested. He’s only agreed to one debate so far, with all the parties. The head-to-head with Miliband is dead in the water.
Cameron is tactically right. I think the debates can only help Miliband seem somewhat normal and electable. The public image of him is not so great, but he appears to come across better when he talks to people. If I were Cameron’s adviser, I would also try to avoid giving him a possible “Nick Clegg 2010” moment. Also, when Cameron gets mad, he turns puce and looks petulant. There’s that. He was also right that it made no sense to have UKIP in one of the debates and no other smaller parties, who have equal or more representation nationally.
Labour’s also quite right: Cameron is running scared. They know full well they have a lot to gain and not much to lose.
The broadcasters have a point too; it would no doubt be a TV event.
But, here’s where they’re all wrong. They’re all dishonest. This has nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with ego, spin and entertainment. And it’s that sort of thing that fuels disengagement with politics.
Cameron’s insistence on including other parties was a stalling tactic. He doesn’t get a cookie* for doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. Labour is so fixated on Cameron that they forgot to pretend to be pleased at the inclusion of other parties, including the Greens, their competition on the left. The broadcasters want ratings. The fact is, if this was about democracy, we wouldn’t have American-style TV debates, we would have debates on issues eg foreign policy, with the appropriate party spokesmen doing the talking. Because even though we’ve all watched a lot of West Wing, House of Cards and Veep, the fact is, we live in a parliamentary democracy so we vote for parties, not leaders. Their debate format obscures, even distorts this fact. Furthermore, is 3 minutes enough time to do anything more than give mindless platitudes and simplistic soundbites?
This is one of the most critical elections for years. Fresh off a referendum on the future of the union, we’re looking at (apparently endless) austerity. The monstering of the poor, the immigrant and whatever other scapegoats we can find. The possibility of flouncing out of the EU while marching to the beat of the UKIP drum as politicians kowtow to an aggrieved, vocal minority who bleat about being marginalised from their comfortable platforms on the BBC and the broadsheets. There is a lot in the balance. And everyone is playing macho games.
*the Scooby snack of justice