Belfast Telegraph

Debate row goes on despite new plan

Wrangling over which political leaders should appear in general election TV debates looks set to continue despite a move to include more parties.

Broadcasters have drawn up a revised format proposal which pitches seven politicians against one another in two debates - the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, Ukip, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru.

The change appeared designed to overcome the Prime Minister's refusal to take part in any debate that included Ukip's Nigel Farage but not Natalie Bennett of the Green Party - and to reflect a significant public campaign for the inclusion of the environmentalist party.

But the Liberal Democrats made clear that they remained opposed to their exclusion from a third debate which would see David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband go head to head, insisting they must be allowed to "defend our record" as a party of government.

And Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) - which is the fourth-largest party in the Commons with eight MPs - said it was "ludicrous" for it not to be invited when Scottish and Welsh nationalists would be able to make their pitch on-screen.

Broadcasters had suggested three debates: one head to head between Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband, another also involving Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, and a third with Mr Farage thrown into the mix.

The new line-up - sent to parties following talks between TV executives - would see BBC and ITV each host a seven-way debate, with the leaders of the two main parties doing battle on another broadcast by Sky and Channel 4.

BBC director-general Tony Hall told Radio Times it made "absolute sense" to include the Greens, SNP and Plaid alongside Ukip and the established Westminster parties.

"This time round the debates are going to be more important to democracy than last time round," he said.

"I don't know anyone who can call this election; therefore the notion of hearing those who are competing for your vote being tested and testing one another is much more important than last time round."

Asked if the 7-7-2 format would secure the participation of Mr Cameron - whom rivals accuse of seeking to avoid the debates happening - a Conservative source said: "Further discussions are planned and we will obviously look at any new proposals presented by broadcasters."

A Liberal Democrat spokesman confirmed that the party had received the new proposals and indicated it remained opposed to Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband being able to go head to head without Mr Clegg.

"We have always been clear that, as a party of government, we must be able to defend our record in all the TV debates," he said.

"We will continue to make that case in our discussions with the broadcasters."

Ms Bennett - whose party attracted more than 280,000 signatures to a petition in favour of its inclusion on the back of polls showing it regularly ahead of the Lib Dems - welcomed the news.

Unlike Ukip, which last year won the European elections, took two Commons seats from the Tories and became established as the third party in national opinion polls, the Greens have not been designated a "major party" for the general election by broadcast watchdog Ofcom.

SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson said: "With a larger membership than the Lib Dems and Ukip combined, and more elected MPs than Ukip, the case for including the SNP in the televised debates is unanswerable."

And with the SNP, Plaid and the Greens all led by women, he said, it would "rightly show that politics beyond Westminster isn't just an old boys' club".

Plaid leader Leanne Wood said it was " a significant victory for the vast number of people who have campaigned for the inclusion of the anti-austerity parties in these debates".

But DUP leader and Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson said he would write to the BBC and ITV demanding an explanation.

His deputy, North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds, said: "It is ludicrous to exclude us when parties with fewer seats and fewer votes are being included."

George Galloway - the former Labour MP who now is the sole representative of the Respect Party in the Commons - posted on Twitter: "Oi - what about me?"

The broadcasters did not publicly confirm the new proposals, which are due to be formally revealed tomorrow.

In a joint statement they said they "remain committed to providing election debates in the run-up to the general election".

"The debates played an important role in informing millions of our viewers in 2010 and we will continue to work with all the parties to ensure that they happen again in 2015."

Ms Bennett said the expanded format would be "a recognition that the politics of the future does not have to look like the politics of the past".

"The broadcasters have joined the age of multi-party politics," she said.

"It is a decision that serves the interests of both the electorate and British democracy. Our membership and polling surge demonstrates that when people hear about Green Party values and policies many embrace them.

"The political landscape is fracturing and fewer and fewer people want the business-as-usual politics offered by the traditional Westminster parties. This is the Green Spring.

"The Green Party would like to thank everyone who contributed to the tremendous #InviteTheGreens campaign that I am sure had an impact on this outcome."

SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said debates featuring large numbers of parties were common in other parts of Europe but suggested it should not be for broadcasters to decide the line-ups.

"I'd welcome that," she told ITN News of the seven-party format.

"I understand that for broadcasters in this country that's something new but if you go to countries all over Europe you find that debates like that are nothing out of the ordinary because you have PR systems with many different parties, any combination of which could end up forming the government.

"What is unacceptable is for broadcasters to pick and choose which of the parties have a right to be heard in those debates," she went on.

"I am the leader of the largest party in Scotland, the third largest party in the UK in terms of membership. I'm the leader of a party that has six MPs in the House of Commons and yet as it stands we are to be excluded from the TV debates but Ukip, who have two, are to be included.

"No matter what way you look at this, it would be democratically unacceptable for the SNP to be excluded from these debates and that's an argument I will continue to make very loudly."

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