UK Party leader debates….it’s just not how our democracy works

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January 27, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith

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That the Party leader debates should happen seems to be obvious to everyone. But a closer look at what they mean would show that far from enhancing UK democracy they would in fact contradict how our democratic system works.

The political manoeuvring over the TV debates took on a new dimension last week when the broadcasters came up with a different plan and a stark warning for David Cameron. Responding to his insistence that he wouldn’t debate with UKIP unless the Greens were there too, the broadcasters put forward two debates with seven parties involved (adding a Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru) and one debate between David Cameron and Ed Miliband. They also suggested that if Cameron didn’t take part in these, they would “empty chair” him, meaning the Conservatives would not be represented and the debates will continue.

It is fair to say that this plan has proved controversial too. There is the prospect of Ed Miliband carrying out a farcical debate with an empty chair (see this clip of Clint Eastwood doing so in the last US Presidential election). Nick Clegg has pointed out that he should be included in the Cameron- Miliband debate, as the Lib Dems should have the chance to defend their record as a party of Government. Then the DUP from Northern Ireland waded in, insisting that as the fourth largest party in Parliament if the SNP and Plaid Cymru are allowed in then they should be too.

All this goes to put us in an interesting position. The broadcasters could be said to have called Cameron’s bluff. He said he wouldn’t debate without the Greens, and the Greens are now there. But now we have Clegg and the DUP making legitimate objections, and the debates may not happen for reasons other than Cameron. So this development may actually be more pleasing to him than the broadcasters might have hoped. I wouldn’t fancy the job of the presenter of the debates with seven parties either…how do you control that many leaders with so much to say?

But there is a broader question about these debates’ and it stems from the words of Tony Hall, the Director General of the BBC. In amongst justification of the new plans was this line: “The debates are going to be more important to democracy than last time round.”

Actually, that is simply not true. We do not have a Presidential style of government. Or, at least, we shouldn’t do. When you vote for a political party you are voting for them to implement a published manifesto of policy commitments.bThe person that is elected to be Prime Minister doesn’t possess a veto on policies, isn’t the Head of State, and is beholden to the discipline of their MPs. Hearing the party leaders repeat their party lines on television MAY help democracy if it means that it is the only way a lot of people will actually hear any of the policies, but I would argue that the increased focus on party leaders is actually harmful to our representative democracy system.

When you vote on May 7th, you are voting to elect a representative for your constituency. That representative, from whichever party, represents the whole constituency, not just those who vote for them, and their job is supposed to be to hold the Government to account. Instead, their main aim is to embark on a ministerial career. To do that, they need to curry favour with the party leader. Which means the main check on the executive power of a party leader is not Parliament anymore. Zack Goldsmith, on a visit to my school two years’ ago, noted that he often bumped into MPs going to vote who didn’t even know the motion they were voting for, they were just voting with their party.

My point is this. If we are going to have Prime Ministerial debates then we should be thinking of having a separate election for a Prime Minister. We should be thinking of separating the election of the executive (who develop the policies) from the election of the legislature (who vote on whether to make those policies law). To those of you who argue that this would make us more like the U.S. presidential system, where a beauty pageant is followed by a governing process where nothing can get done, my answer to you is that we shouldn’t be having the debates because the debates are leading to that. We are voting for a Prime Minister by proxy rather than who represents us.

If you disagree, think of this point. Nigel Farage will be one of those standing up on the podium in two of those debates. He is a party leader but he is NOT an MP. In fact, recent polling from South Thanet, where he is standing, suggests that he may not win there. Yet he will be up there, making promises and policy commitments that he may not have a chance to have anything to do with.

THAT is not how our Parliamentary system is supposed to work. If it needs to change, it should change, but not by stealth.

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