David Herdson on “Cameron’s epic mistake re the Greens and the debates”

David Herdson on “Cameron’s epic mistake re the Greens and the debates”

The PM has just painted a huge target on his own back

The Green Party is not the fourth party of UK politics and never has been so why is it treated by media and opponents alike as if it is?

For most of the Greens’ history, the fourth party has been either the SNP or the dominant Unionist party in N Ireland: the former has consistently won fourth-most general election votes until surpassed by UKIP in 2005, the latter regularly had fourth-most seats. However, by their nature parties operating only in Scotland or N Ireland are not treated by the London media in the same way as those operating across Britain. In fact, the Greens haven’t even been the fourth party in England since 1992, having polled fewer votes and fielded fewer candidates than UKIP in every election since (for simplicity, I’m counting the three UK Green Parties as one which they’re not).

However, mental inertia in the media is strong and the Greens have the tremendous advantage of being the first respectable GB-wide fourth party, emerging in the 1980s and peaking with their spectacular (and very lucky) performance in the 1989 Euros – and that, plus enough friends in the media – has enabled them to punch above their weight.

All of which has nothing to do with David Cameron’s insistence that the Greens should be present at the General Election debates. The thinking there isn’t hard to decipher: as with Clegg in 2010, a new face making superficially attractive noises could easily peel off a lot of soft voters. If the Greens, with their ultra-left policies (see their recent wholehearted support for Syriza in the Greek elections, for example), are present then it would be Labour and the Lib Dems, who are at least trying to reconcile left-of-centre views with economic reality, who would be in the firing line. The second prize would be if the Greens are excluded then the whole set of debates might be off, which is usually good for an incumbent.

Except they probably wouldn’t be. The media like the debates: they simplify, they concentrate and they attract viewers and readers. It’s the X Factor formula for politics and not only does the X Factor formula work but the media and public understand it. If they can go ahead they will do, whether or not one invitee opts to boycott, even the prime minister. And if they do go ahead without one of the four main leaders, you can guarantee who’ll take most of the flack from the other three: the one man who can’t answer back (which is of itself sufficient incentive for those three to ensure they happen).

So unless the Greens are invited, that leaves Cameron with a dilemma. Will they be? Almost certainly not. OfCom’s judgement is sound: despite the Greens’ recent uptick in the polls, their behaviour and performance this parliament has not been that of a major party. Of the 19 GB Westminster by-elections, they’ve not contested seven and lost their deposit in the other twelve. They may be a factor in a handful of seats but then so will the SNP and others, who would undoubtedly challenge an invite to Natalie Bennett and not to them. Furthermore, less is more when it comes to debates: the TV companies won’t want crowded stages and stifled discussion.

If that scenario does come to pass – and there’s every chance it will – then Cameron will have to decide between performing a U-turn and participating after all, which will look weak and indecisive, and standing by his decision, which will allow Miliband, Farage and Clegg to paint their own portrait of him and the Conservatives without a right of reply. Oops.

  • Mike Smithson is due to take part in a discussion on prospects for the coming election with Ben Page of Ipsos-MORI on BBC Radio 4’s “The Week in Westminster” at 11am
  • David Herdson

    P.s. My thanks to those on PB who gave me some advice about writing alternative history. I’ve put up a first story here. Please feel free to read and (if a member), comment.

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