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Should the party without a single MP be given a place in the TV debates?

December 1st, 2012

David Herdson says there might be a case based on the polling

In one sense, UKIP has enjoyed a Golden November. In the PCC elections, every one of their 24 candidates kept his or her deposit, their shares of the vote ranging from 6.9% in Merseyside to 18.7% in Northamptonshire. In the six parliamentary by-elections, they chalked up over five thousand votes in Corby, more than a fifth of the vote in Rotherham, two second places and only one lost deposit (the same number of deposits forfeited as the Conservatives and two fewer than the Lib Dems). In another sense, they end the month with nothing to show from the elections: they lost every one and didn’t come close in any.

That dichotomy lies at the heart of what is likely to soon become the debate about whether UKIP are given a place in the leaders’ debates for the 2015 general election. There is of course the first question as to whether the debates will happen at all to answer but the precedent has been set and media and public will expect a repetition. Turning down an invite is probably a luxury none can afford.

The case for their inclusion is that they are scoring at least as well as the Liberal Democrats in both opinion polls and real elections, and that if the Lib Dems are to be represented – and it’s inconceivable that they won’t be – then Farage should be there too. The timing of the 2014 European election will only add momentum to that argument.

    The case against is that for all their votes, UKIP have no record at all (yet) of even being within a shout of winning a Westminster seat, and the debates are supposed to be between prime ministerial candidates.

It is possible that UKIP might win a seat by 2015 if the right constituency came up – which essentially means an English one with minimal Labour presence – but that would still be written off as unusual. Respect won in Bradford West but they won’t get a slot either.

UKIP’s chances of participating may also suffer from the probable hostility of virtually everyone else involved. The media like straightforward battles and the more people involved, the more complex it becomes (and the more structured and stilted the debate). Every other party is also likely to be opposed. Clegg showed in 2010 how quickly the polls can change off the back of a very good and unexpected performance. Were Farage to do something similar – and with his currently low profile and his differentness from the others, he might – there’s no telling who would come off worst from it given that UKIP pull from both the centre-right and from oppositionists.

The minor parties too would also kick up a huge fuss were UKIP awarded a place. The Greens would stake a claim to inclusion as another national party (and one that has already won a seat at a general election), as would the BNP but with lesser justification. Both Scots and Welsh Nationalists could point to their superior record of winning Westminster seats despite the relatively few constituencies contested.

Why does it matter? Because we know that the debates can massively shift opinion polls and we can assume that this can feed through to actual votes, even if the effect turned out to be smaller than anticipated in 2010. Those in the studio gain a massive advantage over those in the cold. Merely the presence of UKIP would affect the dynamics between and within the other three and that could have a decisive effect on the final outcome, even if UKIP themselves were again to draw a blank.

David Herdson