The television debates are actually a trilogy of the most tedious, trivial events in the course of the UK general election. And I don’t say that lightly. They are a nuisance water-cooler moment at best, where bearded wastrels can gather on Twitter to discuss what a large forehead David Cameron has, or whether Nick Clegg’s shirt is saffron, or more of a dog-vomit yellow. And yet, nobody believes me — and as we begin the ominous countdown to polling day in May, they have become one of the biggest talking points in British political culture. But surely the events of the past few months regarding the Greens prove my point?
So here’s an honest question for you. When did everyone just start believing that “The Debates” are an essential part of the democratic process? They aren’t a chance for any meaningful accountability — or they certainly weren’t last time. Last time we just learned which of the crew of three banal automatons could masquerade as an actual person most convincingly. In order to convince us they do indeed have souls, the ‘candidates’ (which they weren’t, because we don’t even directly elect our sodding Prime Minister, look it up!) were required to smile on cue, make eye contact with a camera and remember the names of members of the crowd; whilst simultaneously helping Sky and ITV raise ad revenue under the guise of journalism.
“Perhaps the most annoying thing about the debates though, is that in the face of it all that, they are still billed with all the unflinching, farcical severity of the main event at Wrestlemania.”
“That’s right, THIS SUNDAY, THREE MEN go toe to toe in the winner takes all, no holds barred, bicker to the death. THREE public school fib-machines will enter the ring to broadly say the same thing for an hour; only ONE will leave. Who will be crowned King liar, who will simply see his pants set on fire? Remember kids, these politicians are professionals, so don’t try this at home!” Bizarrely, TV debates are still seen as some guaranteed gateway into power, despite various examples suggesting the opposite. For instance, Alex Salmond’s three-time thrashing of Sam the Eagle look-alike Alistair Darling during the Scottish independence debates, which did as much for the Yes vote as it did for “#IAgreeWithNick” Clegg before the last election.
In spite of this, because of the wall of pretentious hyperbole from broadcasters, it was hard not to shriek with terror when Love Thy Neighbour fan club president Nigel Farage was invited to light up a fat one, and blow the cancerous ash into the nation’s collective face in the next debates. Monster Raving-Rip-offs UKIP prat-falling their way onto a televisual podium subsequently prompted widespread condemnation from anti-racist campaigners, et al, particularly in the face of the exclusion of other ‘fringe’ parties. The SNP, Plaid Cymru, and most notably the Green Party are considered ‘minor’ parties, despite equalling or surpassing UKIP’s level of national support.
The indignation of radical campaigners had an unexpected effect though.
British broadcasters knew there would be outcry — and had hoped it would simply reaffirm how important their proud tradition of televised debates (which dates back literally several years) was. Because if you can’t get on TV, you can’t be part of the club. The exclusion of the progressive Greens and the privileging of the Sith Lord Farage by the nation’s news channels swiftly became a news story in its own right, which the nation’s news channels proceeded to exploit.
There were ample opportunities to fan the flames of course, and broadcasters took great joy in stirring their own storm in a teacup. They revelled in the Prime Minister’s threats to avoid the debates if the Greens weren’t present, as well as Ed Miliband’s subsequent ‘threat’ of debating against an empty chair (begging the question of what would happen when the chair won). They took glee in poking the public with inflammatorily stupid statements from Ofcom’s spokesman, who all but stated the Greens needed to procure a vial of unicorn semen to be considered a ‘major party’… and even then he had his fingers crossed, so he could take back his promise if he fancied. The outrage grew; the story trundled on, the debates seemed like an indispensable institution of democracy. “That’s our job done until June” thought the politics correspondents respectively…
Except, unfortunately for Aunty Beeb and co, they aren’t the only game in town these days, thanks to the way court of public opinion has evolved in the age of the internet.
Outrage goes viral these days, and in the build up to a big vote, it can supply exactly the kind of momentum a small party might need to make big breakthroughs. Election coverage in the age of the internet is beyond the control of the centralised dinosaurs at Broadcast House. Whilst, obviously, they are still a big part of it having caused the initial situation, rather than prove their own importance, they actually ended up showing TV debates are an irrelevance if your party campaigns in a way that appeals to disenfranchised voters. An irrelevance that was becoming painfully obvious before the BBC, Sky and ITV caved in last Thursday to offer Green leader Natalie Bennett a platform of her own.
The irony, then, is the controversy generated in the print and digital media has probably done the Greens more good than had they simply been included in the first place – an overnight surge in membership taking them to the brink of being the UK’s third largest political party. They used the exposure to talk about living standards, gender inequality, war and climate change. They reached out to people the established politicians represented by the debates long abandoned. In doing so they made a gain that reaches beyond the election, as thousands of people agreed not just to vote for them, but become members.
I might not be one of them still, but as a radical and a debate-sceptic, I’m happy with the question it presents us with. If you can mobilise people with radical ideas – without having to go through David Dimbleby and chums – who the hell needs a seat next to Nick Clegg anyway?