Wednesday, 30 September 2009

TV debates

As I have said before, one of the problems of a "head to head" debate between party leaders - which now seems pretty much inevitable - is that a UK general election isn't primarily (constitutionally, anyway) about electing a government; it is about electing a legislature. The government is then formed from within the legislature. That is a key difference between the UK system and, say, the US system where head-to-head debates are a natural part of the campaign.

It is, of course, entirely natural for any member of a party which has no chance of forming the next government of the UK to worry about being excluded from the debate about the selection of members of the legislature. But that is not my only concern about the proposed debates which now seem extremely likely to occur.

In reality only a tiny minority of the UK electorate can vote for Brown, Cameron, or Clegg. Only in three constituencies can electors vote for any of them, and there is no single constituency where individual electors can choose between the three. I'm sure that the broadcasters would argue that by limiting the debate to those three individuals, they are including only those who could conceivably be Prime Minister of the UK. In the case of Clegg in particular I'm sure I'm not the only one to doubt the rationale of that argument.

It could be argued that, in constitutional terms, they are in any event wrong to limit the debate to those who they think could be the next Prime Minister. According to the (unwritten) constitution of the UK, the Queen chooses the next prime minister. And there is nothing in law, as I understand it, which limits her choice to the leader of the largest party, or indeed the leader of any party, or indeed a member of the House of Commons. It is only political convention that limits the choice to two.

Holding direct debates involving only those with at least an outside chance of becoming the next prime minister of the UK excludes the views of other parties who stand a realistic chance of becoming members of the legislature, which is what is actually being elected. It is another step towards a presidential style of government rather than a Parliamentary style of government. I actually think that there may well be arguments in favour of holding separate elections for the legislature and the government; but that should be the subject of political discussion and decision. It should not be forced upon us by a commercial broadcaster holding a gun to the Prime Minister's head.

Brown has been given very little choice in this instance, but it is a sad day for democracy when the nature of UK politics can be changed by a commercial company acting largely in their own rather than the country's interests.

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