Tonight, the leaders of the 7 largest political parties go head-to-head in a TV debate, ahead of the UK’s general election in five weeks’ time.
Whilst TV debates have been a thing in many other countries for years now, this is only the second UK general election where they’ve taken place. Last time, in 2010, there were three rounds of debates, each hosted by a different broadcaster: the BBC, ITV and Sky. And these three debates had the same three party leaders: David Cameron for the Conservations, Nick Clegg for the Liberal Democrats and Gordon Brown, the erstwhile prime minister, for Labour.
A lot has changed in five years. Following the election, no one party achieved an overall majority in the House of Commons, and so the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government, with David Cameron as prime minister and Nick Clegg as his deputy. Gordon Brown, meanwhile, retired from front-line politics; bar a brief reappearance last year around the referendum on Scottish independence, he has kept a low profile and is standing down as an MP.
After joining the coalition government, the Liberal Democrats popularity slumped. People like me, who voted for the LibDems in 2010, felt betrayed when many of their policies were abandoned. As a result, I fully expected Britain to become more like the USA, which is, for the most part, a two-party system. Whereas in America there are the Democrats and Republicans, in Britain we would just have Labour and the Conservatives, with the LibDems resigned to the ‘Other’ category along with dozens of other fringe parties.
This didn’t happen.
More recently the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) – a far-right party opposed to the European Union and wanting tighter immigration controls, has risen in popularity and displaced the LibDems as Britain’s third-biggest party. But also, the Green Party, having existed for years but never achieved much, has also seen an increase in support, following the election of its first MP in Brighton in 2010. Right now, the BBC’s ‘poll of polls’ puts Labour and the Conservatives neck-and-neck on 34% of the vote, with UKIP in third, the LibDems in fourth, and the Green Party in fifth.
So that’s five of the parties in tonight’s debate. The other two will be the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru (the Party of Wales) who, in turn, advocate independence for Scotland and Wales. The SNP, despite losing the Scottish referendum last year, are expected to win many more seats in Scotland. Whilst Plaid Cymru do not appear to be riding on a similar tidal wave of popularity, presumably if there will be a Scottish party in the debate then it’s only fair that a Welsh party is there too.
So, in five years, we’ve gone from debates amongst just three parties, to a debate amongst seven. It’s not what I expected to happen, but I’m pleased it has – it seems that, rather than polarising around just two parties, the political spectrum in Britain has widened to encompass a broader range of opinions. Which, if nothing else, makes the result of the elections next month all the more interesting, especially as it’s highly unlikely that any one party will win a majority.
As it is, I won’t be watching tonight’s debate – I have other plans, and have already made my mind up about who I’m going to vote for.