By Bill Lytton
What is Cameron’s plan now there is a seven-way leaders’ debate?
“It is pretty disreputable that David Cameron went in to the 2010 election saying these debates were the most important thing that we could possibly have, people shouldn’t make feeble excuses to get out of them and he is doing precisely that. He is running scared from these debates.”
That’s Ed Miliband’s analysis of the situation, given on the Andrew Marr Show some weeks back. And, for some reason, Tory opposition – UKIP and the Lib Dems included – are running with the same conclusion: Cameron the “chicken” with a deep-seated anxiety complex about facing UKIP and Labour on a national stage.
His ultimatum – to forego the leadership debates without the Green party’s inclusion – also reared up in Parliament’s weekly cartoon of a showdown – Prime Minister’s Questions. Following a prompt by UKIP’s Mark Reckless – amid a symphony of atavistic hisses and boos reserved solely for his presence – Cameron, as he did the week previous, said: “I’ve made my views very clear, if we’re going to have one minor party, we should have all the minor parties.”
That has all changed now that the broadcasters have included the SNP and Plaid Cymru, have they finally called Cameron’s bluff?
Reckless, like his leader Nigel Farage and his enemies of the Left, is still failing to see Cameron’s position for what it is. He may be many things – easy to deride, certainly – but he is not a coward. After all, he is the champion to the Tory’s dictum of long term strategy – the most famous of which is the “long term economic plan”. This too is a long-term strategy; a political power play his opposition is failing to see.
So beguiled with their belief that Cameron is a frightened fool; Miliband, Farage, and Nick Clegg have sent coordinated letters to the man saying that his refusal is “unacceptable” – a “major setback for democracy.” Apparently, they’re missing the irony. In their haste to augment Cameron’s position as a sham-politician, they’ve forgotten that the democratic defense is not with David Cameron, but with the Greens. And, clearly, there is a case to be made for Greens.
But the decision to now include the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru in a seven-way debate with UKIP and the three major parties has thrown the pre-debate, debate wide open. What about the Democratic Unionist Party, furious at being excluded from the plans. Nigel Dodds, the deputy leader of the DUP, said: “It would be ludicrous to exclude the DUP.”
Undoubtedly there was some pressure; Al-Jazeera had already stated they would hold an alternative debate that would give the Greens some credence. The contentious matter, however, is whether the Greens are viable – they failed to receive ‘major party’ status by Ofcom. They hadn’t garnered enough electoral support in the previous elections to gratify them with this title and apparently, that ruling is sacred.
But the Greens have had a strong few months – last week especially. Their party membership has doubled in the last two months and is now surpassing that of UKIP – at the current growth rate they are likely to overtake the Lib Dems. This came alongside favorable polling from Lord Ashcroft which gave the Greens 11 per cent to the Lib Dems’ nine per cent of the vote share. Other polling puts the Greens narrowly behind, in-front, or level with the Lib Dems. And that’s the argument regularly put to the broadcasters. It’s also the impetus for the Green poster that has Natalie Bennett and Caroline Lucas asking: “What are you afraid of boys?”
That’s the crux of this debates debate – fear. But it’s not David Cameron who is scared; he does after all have a litany of punchy statistics to brandish, even if they are sat on dubious foundations: the deficit, economic growth, and unemployment. The fear it seems, is from those with the opposing parties, in what Freudian psychologists would call ‘transference’. Frenetic anxiety attached to these debates lies with Miliband, Clegg, and Farage – not Cameron, but they’re directing their own tumult his way.
The Greens are holding the youth vote according to Opinium. 19 per cent would vote Green tomorrow – that’s compared with 6 per cent for the Lib Dems and 3 per cent for UKIP. And although, in that poll, the Tories and Labour come out with strong support, the concerns that rank highest among young voters are: the NHS, unemployment, poverty, and economic inequality. While this explains the lack of support for UKIP, it also explains the qualms of Labour and the Lib Dems – a party that rivals their exact electoral strategy.
Incidentally, the main parties of the Left are hemorrhaging support to the Greens – according to recent YouGov polling at least. That includes first-time voters, the youth, and the malcontented Left-wing. So there is fear here, as Cameron exemplified in last week’s PMQ’s: “Why is he [Ed Miliband] so frightened of debating the Green Party?”
A platform for the Greens – with the hoped-for Nick Clegg effect we saw in 2010 – could boost support in voter areas other parties are struggling to cover. And of course, this rivaling platform would only benefit the Tories – a war of attrition against Labour, the Lib Dems, and potentially UKIP. Now if we throw the nationalist, and nominally left-leaning Plaid Cymru and SNP into the mix, then Cameron could leave these parties to fight it out themselves. He could be the become the ring master rather than the lion.
This is Cameron’s ‘long term leader’s debates plan’: if and when the debates go ahead with the Greens, Plaid Cymru and SNP (even DUP) ; Cameron will be vindicated for his service to democracy, while the other parties will be lampooned for carelessness in the same light. They will also be embattled with the rival alternative that matches the same political issues and who are already taking voters. After all, it’s doubtful that these debates would go ahead without the prime minister – the man is all too eager to wave his figures around.
As such, his ultimatum is nothing less than good, if not risky, strategy. That Cameron is setting them up for a fall – just in-time for a general election – is continually missed by his opposition. And whether they’re aware of their own deflected anxiety is a matter of the subconscious – but then we’re back to Freud.