The news that Gordon Brown has agreed to participate in a series of TV debates ahead of the next Westminster election is quite rightly causing a bit of a stushie in Scotland. The SNP are talking of amicable solutions to allow Eck to take part, but more likely they will be given short shrift by the TV companies. The result will be legal action from the SNP to prevent any debates bereft of Eck's beaming fizzog from being broadcast in Scotland.
This stance, though potentially depriving us all of watching a half-decent slanging match, seems absolutely correct. Quite why three parties should be accorded the extra publicity and platform that these high-profile debates will afford is not clear to me. The main argument seems to be that only the Labour, Conservative or Lib Dem leaders are potential Prime Ministers in waiting. One only has to read that last sentence again to see the idiocy of the argument...Nick Clegg? Potential Prime Minister?! Ahem.
Behind this lurks the distasteful presumption that the media already knows the outcome (more or less) of the election. As things stand the smaller parties get a raw enough deal: restricting the debates to a Labour-Tory-Lib Dem triopoly fatally undermines the idea of free and fair elections.
Obviously in Scotland the proposed debates simply fail to reflect the continued reality of Labour and the SNP fighting it out for the top prize, with the Tories and Lib Dems failing to get much of a look in. As other observers have noted, if the SNP do well enough there won't be a UK to be Prime Minister of, and under those happy circumstances one G Brown would likely be ineligible for the job - a potential PM indeed! Similar arguments apply to Wales with Plaid Cymru also deserving a place in any debates broadcast there.
Furthermore, one only has to look back to the last European elections to realise that there are in fact other parties out there, even in England. Granted, UKIP might not quite be shooting for second place in a Westminster election (yet), but then again surely their performance in the European elections makes them, and more to the point those people that voted for them, worthy of a little more consideration? And how can they ever hope to make a breakthrough if they are dismissed as a small party, unworthy of even a bit-part role?
The cosy, unthinking consensus in Broadcastingland seems to be that Labour and the Tories will naturally take turns in power for evermore. Anything else is unthinkable. The real value of the Lib Dems in this scenario is merely to lend some feeble credence to the notion that we live in a dynamic multi-party democracy. They make the stitch-up look a little bit more credible.
This ossification of politics is a consequence of the first-past-the-post system, where parties with a broad appeal spread throughout the country suffer compared to those with a more localised support. My hope is that people are gaining more of a taste for proportional representation. We've had it now in Scotland and Wales for 10 years. We've had it in European elections for longer. The London elections are also conducted using PR. If the SNP poll 30% of the vote next year and end up with only 10 MPs I for one will be demanding: "Where is my vote?!" And if UKIP get anything like the same share of the vote as in the European elections but gain no MPs, then I might well be one of many. Democracy indeed.