(The three alternative parties meet in London to plan a tripartite attack on Westminster. Left to right: Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, and Green Party leader Natalie Bennett. Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images Europe)
Contrary to popular belief, democracy is not just a matter of showing up to the voting booth every 5 years or so. A democracy consists of people making decisions based on popular votes, national sentiment, and the decentralized collective decisions of various masses. We must be allowed to do more than tick a few boxes once in a while, if we wish to call ourselves a democracy.
This extends to the media, which has overwhelming power in shaping not only the conversations we have, but the very views which shape those conversations. As a personal aside note, the media in general has too much power to manipulate and misinform – I would prefer a world in which independent bloggers and journalists report the news as they see it without any claims of false ‘objectivity’ or ‘balance’, all the while selectively reporting on issues that fit the hidden agenda. But that’s another conversation altogether.
Back to the issue at hand, we heard this week that the BBC and ITV (the two channels hosting televised political debates for this year’s General Election) are now planning to include the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, and the SNP, reversing their previous ruling alongside Ofcom that the Greens were a ‘minor party’ who had not made any significant electoral gains. I’ve previously written about how ridiculous that response is, which you can read about here.
One of the main reasons their previous decision irritated me at the time was that without the Greens present, the televised debates would only feature parties who all believe in similar things. All four parties – Labour, Lib Dems, Tories, UKIP – believe in some form of austerity, collective punishment for benefit claimants, a privatized rail service, a needlessly harsh immigration policy, a do-nothing approach to climate change, and all four have a stark lack of interest where massive wealth inequality is concerned.
Without the Greens, our debates would centre around who can tinker most effectively with the broken system, alongside some minor policy scuffles as the party leaders fall over each other trying to prove they’re not identical. Labour and the Tories will have a lot of this to do, given that they both voted together to perpetuate austerity recently. With the inclusion of the Greens, Plaid Cymru, and the SNP, we now not only have 3 female leaders in the debates (where before there were none), but three parties who don’t find it so difficult to distance themselves from the traditional Westminster elite. The reason they don’t find it difficult to distance themselves is because they are different from them, both in policy and world-view.
Ironically, the exclusion of the three ‘alternative’ parties (for want of a better word) has but increased their popularity. The Green Party is now reporting more members than UKIP, having recruited over 13,000 members in a single week, and are beating the Lib Dems in some polls. The SNP are also experiencing a surge in the polls, and are now on course to take all but four Scottish seats in May, reducing Labour’s Scottish MP count down from 41 to perhaps just 4. While Plaid Cymru’s support is not rising anywhere near as rapidly, they did overtake the Lib Dems in the 2011 National Assembly elections, and are now the third-biggest party in Wales. Given the probable collapse in the Lib Dem vote and the failure of Labour or the Tories to show any outright polling victories, coalitions that include ‘minor’ parties look like they’re here to stay.
To exclude these three parties from the debates shows a dangerous disinterest in the other side of the conversation. In Britain our national sentiment currently feels that immigration is a problem, austerity is necessary (to differing degrees), that benefit claiming is out of control, and that climate change is not a huge priority. All four of the traditional parties want to appease and fertilize these sentiments in order to win votes – the question of whether these sentiments are true is not a matter they choose to get into. The Greens do.
Before the BBC and ITV revised their decision, the televised debates consisted of a right-wing party that hates the poor (The Tories), their even-further-right, racist Frankensteinian spin-off (UKIP), a centrist-right-leaning party that’s abandoned its working class roots in favour of anti-immigration posturing (Labour), and a party so pockmarked by support for Cameron’s austerity programme that it would do better to recede into the shadows, never to return (Lib Dems).
As a Green Party member and supporter, I naturally want to see my party represented in the televised debates. But I do not write this piece as a Green Party member. I write it as somebody who believes that the British people should not have the full spectrum of ideology hidden from them, and should not be patronized by the media with the assumption that the four traditional parties are the only ones worth voting for, or worth hearing from.
The disconnect between the government and the people grows ever wider each election. Voters are increasingly disillusioned and desperately crying out for more variety whether they know it or not. One of the reasons so many Labour voters won’t move over to the Greens (and there are many reasons) is because they’re so frightened of David Cameron getting a second term. It’s a case of tactical voting, of voting for the least worst party rather than the one whose principles and policies you truly believe in. That leaves our democracy in a very sorry state, and the BBC and ITV were, before this revision, adding to that discontent by hiding from us the true alternative parties (incidentally, so was Nick Clegg, who in a sorry display of cowardice refused to back Bennett’s inclusion).
I have no doubt that the three female leaders will face considerable rudeness, ‘timing issues’, interruptions and dismissals during the debates, and although we’re a long way from getting the government we deserve and need, including real opposition to the traditional 2.5 party system in the televised debates is an much-needed improvement on British democracy.