04 September 2009

TV or not TV?

Eyebrows are being raised at Alex Salmond's suggestion that, should there be a televised Party Leaders' Debate during the course of the next election campaign, he ought to get an invite. On the one hand, it does appear highly irregular that someone who isn't even going to be a candidate in that poll should be invited; on the other, the SNP is a Parliamentary party, and a viable electoral force in one part of the UK and consequently, it ought to play a part in matters.

Now I am by and large sceptical of the TV debate anyway: it's a longstanding lament that UK politics is becoming too presidential, so screening a televised debate between the Prime Ministerial candidates isn't exactly going to buck that trend, especially in a system where a PM can quit and his party can simply find a replacement to enter Downing Street without a General Election (or, in the case of Gordon Brown's accession, even an internal party election) even being considered. Ideas like this simply push the UK political system down roads that it wasn't designed for. Nevertheless, in the words of Diamond Joe Quimby, if that is the way the wind is blowing, let it not be said that I do not also blow. Let's take a look at the potential debate, and the SNP's prospective part in it.

Of course, the biggest argument we'll hear is that if the SNP want in, then an array of parties, such as Plaid, the DUP, the Greens (of at least one variety) and UKIP should get in either. Now, the Greens and UKIP are, in typical considerations, 'minor parties', and if you look at the SNP's vote (and the others') in a Westminster Election, it's hard not to assign the same description.

But there's a problem with that analysis: in Scotland, the only area in which the party puts candidates forward, the SNP is far from a minor party. It's come first in the last two Scotland-wide polls, and came third in the one before those (I mention that because it's seen as a given that the leader of the third party in UK terms should get an invite). In Scotland, the SNP is a major party. Now, in the case of the BBC or ITV, the alternative is simple: have one debate on the UK network, with Messrs. Brown, Cameron and Clegg, and another specifically on BBC Scotland or STV with Jim Murphy, David Mundell, a leading figure from the Scottish LibDems (Alistair Carmichael as Shadow Secretary of State, or Malcolm Bruce as Scottish LibDem President). But Sky is leading the running. Sky News does not have a separate service for Scotland. As far as I'm aware, it doesn't even run the opt-out bulletins that it used to offer for the Republic of Ireland anymore. That means that Sky either has to make time in its UK schedules for the SNP (and Plaid, and Northern Irish parties), or deny major political parties in three of the four nations of the UK a presence.

This, I suspect, is the SNP's calculation. Enough Scots get their news from a UK-wide operation (the network news, UK papers which have at most only a limited Scottish edition, and of course, Sky) to handicap the SNP in any UK-wide election race. Therefore, if Sky start to make the running on any election coverage, then without even the possibility of additional or opt-out programming which the BBC and STV have open to them, the SNP is dealt a major broadcasting blow. That is what Alex Salmond is trying to prevent. And going in all guns blazing and demanding far more than is realistic (a place in the main debate for a man who isn't even a candidate) increases the ability to haggle to a far more reasonable conclusion for all concerned: a prime-time interview with Angus Robertson, for example.

Of course, we all know - and I'd have to have gone gaga to claim otherwise - that Angus Robertson will not be Prime Minister of the UK except in the most outlandish of circumstances (i.e. the SNP somehow ending up as the largest group in Westminster - that would require the presence of at least eleven, maybe even twelve political parties all with broadly equal Parliamentary strength and the SNP winning almost every seat in Scotland, then being both able and willing to form a governing Coalition... so his probability of becoming PM is roughly equal to mine of being the next Scotland manager).

But we all know that Nick Clegg's mathematical probability of becoming PM is just that - mathematical. The reality is that Clegg is not going to be Prime Minister and in fact, even the gloomiest predictions for Labour don't have Clegg even coming close to being Leader of the Opposition. Which is why the hostile reception Alex Salmond's call has got from the Scottish LibDem blogosphere (and up to now, only they have made a point of commenting in any great detail) is intriguing.

If they are the only other party to have such strong feelings on the matter, then what is their calculation? Again, I have nothing more than suspicions, but it's a given that Charles Kennedy did a great deal of good work in making the LibDems look like The Alternative to Labour and the Tories, particularly at a time when one was badly needed. Certainly in that regard, the LibDems succeeded in outshining the SNP come the 2005 Elections. However, things have since gone pear shaped: take a look at some of the 2007 results: a 9% LD-SNP swing in Argyll & Bute; swings of roughly 10% in Aberdeen North and South; even higher than usual swings (though nowhere near enough to make a difference) in places like Ross, Skye & Inverness West, Fife North East and Edinburgh West. An SNP televisual presence would offer a message, for Scottish voters at least, the LibDems would rather not let out: that the SNP represent An Alternative Alternative. And, if recent Scotland-wide election results and opinion polls (to say nothing of both Glasgow East and even Glenrothes) are anything to go by, a more appealing one than the LibDems at that. Even if the LibDems are not consciously basing their hostility on that, it must surely be a factor that concerns them on some level. At least, it ought to.

But there's another matter that needs to be considered: the actual state of politics. Although a Conservative majority looks like the likely outcome, we cannot yet rule out any kind of Tory screwup which hampers them, or for that matter, just a simple change of opinion which points us in the direction of a Hung Parliament. I suspect a Labour majority is now borderline impossible, but they said that about the Tories in 1992.

Which makes this assertion by Andrew Reeves incredibly questionable:

However, in the event that we have a hung Parliament, it will be Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats who will have the balance of power not the SNP or the MSP Alex Salmond!

If we can't be 100% certain of the outcome of the election, then we can't know that either! There could yet be a LibDem implosion, an SNP surge, or a 2007-esque outcome where not even a viable two-party pact can secure a majority. Or - and this is a Hung Parliament scenario which I do consider the most likely of all of them - a situation where one party or another is close to a majority that support from any one of four parties would take the main party over the line, and there are certain issues in which that party finds it advantageous to deal with the SNP ahead of the LibDems or, say, the DUP.

Now I fully accept that if current trends continue, a Tory majority will look ever likelier and the SNP's position will become irrelevant in terms of the UK dimension. But then, so will Nick Clegg's position in a Prime Ministerial context, so LibDem objections will look even more out of place. In fact, by that point, it would even be a waste of Gordon Brown's time and effort for him to show up. However, for the moment there exists the strongest possibility of a Hung Parliament since 1992, and the SNP, under those circumstances, has a chance to influence at least some aspects of UK reserved policy.

And if there exists that possibility, where SNP viewpoints could end up influencing even a small part of people's lives across the UK, then the UK public has an absolute right and necessity to know what those viewpoints are.

That is why there needs to be at least stronger coverage for the SNP. One way or another.


redcliffe62 said...

sensible comments, and realistic.

although i think cameron brown and clegg should debate salmond and show off their scottish knowledge, or lack of it.

if they want to be pm of the uk thay ought to know what happens in all the component parts.

Stephen Glenn said...

Have I really just seen you gauge Lib Dem Parliamentary strength after the next election on the 59 seats of Scotland ignoring the 577 other seats we'll be contesting?

In those other seats I'd see us lose some to the Tories and possibly gain more from Labour. Just like I see us possibly gain a few of Labour up here and possibly lose some to other parties if we're not careful.

Of course universal swings are hard things to guage actual results. They cannot account for the incumbancy factor in individual seats,which unlike the Tories or Labour is something that Lib Dems seems to have more often in our favour, or the odd hard worked campaign. The swing in 2003 should have seen the Tories wipe out Ed Davey's 56 vote majority, not lead to a 15,676 one for example.

Will said...

Stephen, you and I both know that Scotland is one of if not the most important part of the UK, with less than one tenth of Commons seats but around one fifth of the LibDem group. Not only that, but it was seen as a massive potential growth area after 2005. Therefore, anything that blocks or reverses LibDem progress in Scotland is a severe blow to the group as a whole.

Not just that, but remember the message about how the LibDems had momentum in Scotland? If that's a factor, then any electoral threat to the Scottish LibDems in 2010 will surely make things harder for the Holyrood elections in 2011 and the locals in 2012.

As to the rest of the UK, I agree with you to an extent, but would caution that the Tories' second places to LibDems have traditionally tended to be closer than LibDems' second places to Labour and many LibDem MPs will have to hope that they still have their Davey-esque personal standing and a shed load of Labour tactical votes on their side.

Grogipher said...

Can I just have a little rant about Sky News? I watched three stories on it today, in an attempt to look at it with a fresh pair of eyes.

How shite was it!? First story was about Megrahi and was entirely disingenuous, and didn't reflect either the political or legal realities of the decision.

Then a story about flooding in 'more-ray'.

Then a story claiming that NICE are the decision making body for the UK (in terms of drug availability).

3 stories in a row with 3 glaringly obvious mistakes.

James Higham said...

How relevant is the SNP in the context of Britain as a whole?

Will said...

G, for me, the only redeeming feature of Sky News is that it isn't its sister station, Fox.

James, the SNP has the potential to be relevant in the event of a Hung Parliament when it would have the power to tip the Parliamentary balance one way or the other (the 1979 confidence debate, when the SNP brought the Callaghan Government down, for example). So in terms of reserved policy matters - defence, foreign policy, social security and so forth - the SNP could play a key role in the policy direction of the UK.

Stuart Winton said...

Surely if Sky got the national debate that wouldn't preclude BBC Scotland or STV doing a Scottish one? Indeed, I think Sky offered to provide the debate to the terrestrial networks anyway in the interests of fairness.

Will said...

A fair point, Stuart, but it still doesn't address the issue of Scottish voters getting a distorted picture of the election from Sky (I suspect that Brown, Cameron and Clegg are a better draw than Murphy and Mundell), and more importantly, doesn't give UK voters a flavour of what SNP MPs would support and oppose in the event of a Hung Parliament.

At times like this, when there's a possibility of a Hung Parliament in a way that there hasn't been since 1992, the whole UK public need to be better informed about the groups who could finding themselves tipping the balance one way or another. The SNP is one of those groups, and on that basis, there needs to be more coverage of the SNP (and Plaid, and the NI parties) in the UK media.

Key bored warrior. said...

Given that Scotlands news and current affairs is filtered through an English owned and unionist biased platfrom, which is seen and read and listened to through out Scotland then it is absolutely correct that Alex Salmond should be given the same status as the rest of the leaders.

As an independent minded Scot I also wish to hear what Welsh politics are about and the views of UKIP and the BNP.

It would be grossly unfair if only the three main leaders from London were allowed to influence political opinion here, however much they want to. The SNP are now Scottish mainstream, the rest of the UK are entitled to know why Scotland will soon secede from the UK.

Malc said...

For James H,

In academic terms at least (and according to Giovanni Sartori's analysis) the SNP have been system relevant - that is to say, they have "coalition" or "blackmail" potential - in every parliamentary term since the 1970s.

The point is that statewide parties may not have considered devolution - and certainly not the first time round - without the electoral strength of the SNP. Whether you like them or not, you have to concede that, for better or worse they've influenced the political debate on the constitution for the last 40 years. I'd suggest that makes them relevant.

On another point. Will, you suggest on the Scottish version of any debate, it'd be Murphy, Mundell and Carmichael/ Bruce... and presumably Angus Robertson representing the SNP.

Out of curiousity, why? None of those MPs are the leaders of the "Scottish" version of their party (and indeed, Labour don't have a Scottish "leader"). I get that they'd be the ones standing in the election. But if they are not the leader of the party in Scotland, then they don't really have a mandate to speak for what the party would do - in a Scottish context of course.

Also, I think Michael Moore is the Lib Dems Scottish leader (though I'm sure Stephen will correct me). And how much of a slap in the face to Iain Gray would it be if Murphy was the face of "Scottish" Labour?

Will said...

KBW, I agree and would like to follow what you said up by noting how rarely a 'UK' media delivers on the name (hence the rather scathing review of BBC news earlier in the year).

Malc, I'm basing my conjecture on the precedent of last time, where Darling spoke for Labour - not McConnell - and Peter Duncan spoke for the Tories (though that was probably based on his position as Chairman of the Scottish Tories, but his successor in that role seems far less prominent). Malcolm Bruce is, if memory serves, President of the Scottish LibDems; Michael Moore is Deputy Leader of the Scottish Party, and Carmichael is of course Shadow SoS, so we have this Cerberus-like Leadership structure for the Scottish LibDems at Westminster. That is my basis for suggesting who I've suggested.