In the lead up to the 2010 general election, no one would have dreamed of inviting UKIP leader Nigel Farage to participate in the United Kingdom’s first ever televised leadership debates. Having consistently polled less than 5 per cent of the popular vote since the last general election, and without a single MP in Parliament, UKIP were branded a fringe party, extremist, and thus unworthy of extended media coverage. Yet nearly four years after Britain’s first televised debate, there is a serious case to be made for the inclusion of UKIP in any leadership debate that may take place in the run up to 2015.
In order to assess whether UKIP has a right to be included in the 2015 leadership debates we must first consider the reasons why the Liberal Democrats were invited to participate in 2010. In the run up to the 2010 general election it was widely predicted by both academics and political commentators alike that a hung parliament would result. The Labour government was seen as a sitting duck under media disaster Gordon Brown and yet Conservative leader David Cameron was still battling to overcome his ‘nasty party’ image. The Liberal Democrats, always the bridesmaid but never the bride, had seen a steady increase in fortunes in the run up to the election, polling an average of 15 to 20 per cent of the popular vote. They faced, however, a credibility crisis, untried, untested, and therefore considered untrustworthy. Polls conducted six months prior to election night saw the three main parties separated by a mere 20 point gap, with the Conservatives on 39, Labour on 29 and the Liberal Democrats on 19 per cent nationally. A Conservative majority was far from assured. When the suggestion was made in November 2009 for a series of televised leadership debates, it therefore seemed natural that all three parties be included.
A precedent was thus set in 2010. The reason the Liberal Democrats were invited to take part in the leadership debates was because they were seen as viable competitors for real political power. While few predicted an outright Liberal Democrat majority, many guessed that they would be the ‘kingmakers’ come election day. The question therefore remains whether it can be argued that UKIP hold a similar position in the run up to 2015.
Much of the evidence certainly suggests so. Over the past 18 months UKIP’s popularity has taken an unprecedented turn. Since March 2013 UKIP have consistently polled between 10 and 20 per cent of the popular vote. Indeed the most recent polls put them on 15 per cent. Furthermore they look set to win todays European elections, with 31 per cent of those recently polled saying that they intended to vote UKIP come polling day. This would double the number of seats held by the party in the European Parliament. In May 2013 they came fourth in the UK local council elections receiving nearly a quarter of the popular vote and winning 147 seats. Yet most importantly, over the past 6 months UKIP have routinely outpolled the Liberal Democrats. As a coalition partner, and having been included in 2010, it seems highly unlikely that the Liberal Democrats would be excluded from any potential leadership debate in 2015. On that basis, excluding Nigel Farage could potentially be seen as inherently unfair by the electorate at large.
Yet without a set formula to decide who classifies as a so-called ‘mainstream’ party in Britain today, the role UKIP should play in any future leadership debates remains unknown. Political commentator and President of YouGov Peter Kellner suggests three ways in which it could be decided who takes part in the debates. Option one is to limit the debates to the party leaders who have a realistic chance of becoming Prime Minister, a sensible qualification perhaps being 100 MPs at the previous election and/or polling of at least 20 per cent at the start of the election year. As it currently stands this option would exclude the Liberal Democrats.
Option two is to allow the leaders of all parties with MPs in most regions of the UK and selected candidates in a great majority of constituencies to participate. This would see the Liberal Democrats included but not UKIP.
Option three is to include any party with a significant amount of the popular vote, say 10 per cent, and candidates standing in most constituencies. Based on the current situation, this would include both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats.
Option three is certainly the most popular amongst the general public. When asked in October 2013 who they thought should take part in the potential leadership debates in the run up to 2015, 49 per cent of those polled answered varying combinations of Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Farage. In a democratic nation state, the will of the majority simply cannot be ignored.
Indeed this article concludes that it would be dangerous to do so. To exclude UKIP from the 2015 leadership debates would not only harm the mainstream political elite, who would be perceived as cowards, but may inadvertently hand UKIP an increase in support. If they are excluded, UKIP can legitimately play the underdog card and run on a platform of anti-politics, anti-establishment policies, surely able to win votes in this post-expenses scandal era. Yet if they are invited to participate some of the wind may be taken out of their sails as it was following BNP leader Nick Griffin’s appearance on BBC Question Time in October 2009. Britain’s political elite should not be afraid of taking on UKIP in the 2015 televised debates. UKIP should have their chance to make their case. It will be up to their competitors to challenge it.
Rebecca Writer-Davies is a 3rd year History and Politics undergraduate student at the University of Nottingham.