Saturday, 7 March 2015

An empty gesture

Oh, good!  The discourse of the 2015 General Election continues to be dominated by Televised Debates between the main party leaders (or between the main and not-so-main party leaders, or between one party leader and a cat named Gilbert).  Y'know, because it's not like there are any more important issues to talk about just a couple of months before an election – like policies, or anything…

I have written at length about why the TV Debates are a bad idea, and should be scrapped.  They are a farce which threaten to turn British politics into a soap opera with relatable 'characters' at which one can cheer or boo.  They pull focus away from local party candidates and onto party leaders, further diminishing the all-too-important link between constituency residents and their local parliamentary representative.  And, as we are already seeing, they dominate the news agenda ahead of the things people should actually be talking about.

Despite all of this, the TV Debates look likely to go ahead anyway.  But things still aren't straight forward!  David Cameron – the Prime Minister, and leader of the Conservative party – is still refusing to take part in the debates.  That is his prerogative.

Despite the fact that a debate between party leaders which does not include the leader of the current largest party – the party which is likely to be either the largest or second largest party in the next parliament too – would be rather odd, broadcasters are undeterred, and plan to go ahead with the debates with or without Mr Cameron.  That is their prerogative.

However, the latest furore in this saga that will not die is how broadcasters should treat the Prime Minister's absence (if absent he be).  Those keen to paint Mr Cameron as 'scared' of the debates (because who doesn't love political discourse which is lifted straight from the vernacular of eight-year-old playground bullies?) would like to see an 'empty chair' in his stead.  In my opinion, however, this would be the very worst thing the broadcasters could do, in the event of a debate which did not include the Prime Minister.

Imagine how this kind of debate would go.  Seven eerily-lit lecterns in front of a studio audience – six of them occupied by the leaders of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP, the Green Party, the SNP and Plaid Cymru; one of them conspicuously empty.  What are those six other party leaders going to focus on?

I know what I would do in that situation, if I were one of those party leaders.

I would be at great pains to draw attention to Mr Cameron's empty lectern, at every opportunity.  I would address all my remarks to it personally.  I would highlight the Tory leader's lack of participation in the debate every chance I got.  In short, I would hope to 'win' the debate (or, at least, come out of it looking favourable) simply by showing up.

It's the obvious tactic, isn't it?  Some of our major party leaders are prone to some incredible gaffes (as are some of our minor party leaders), but I don't think any of them are stupid enough not to spot that.  By 'empty chair'-ing David Cameron, the broadcasters will let six other party leaders off the hook – allowing them to spend ninety minutes pointing and jeering at a 'pantomime villain' figure, making snide remarks about the Prime Minister to general applause, rather than putting forward their own policies and their own visions for Britain.

However much you may feel David Cameron would deserve such treatment for his obstinacy on the issue of the debates, we are often told that the advantage of having televised debates at all is to help voters make up their minds about which party to vote for come Polling Day; this farce of a debate would not do that – it would simply allow six politicians to hurl petty insults at a seventh politician who isn't there.  How is that a meaningful part of the democratic process?

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