Ian Swanson: SNP poised to gain from TV debates

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FIVE years ago, more than 20 million people tuned in to watch Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg clash over the key issues in the 2010 general election.

The televised debates were hailed a success and politicians on all sides said they would become an inevitable feature of future election campaigns.

It looks as if voters will again be able to watch the party leaders fight it out on the small screen, but it is not yet certain and it has not been as simple as some might have hoped.

The problem is that all the parties have different interests when it comes to TV debates. Those in power are normally the least enthusiastic about opening themselves up to challenge, while the main opposition is eager for the chance to take them apart and the minor parties just want the 
recognition and platform which goes with being included.

Before a word has been uttered from a podium, the SNP looks like the winner in the 2015 TV clashes. The current plan to have two seven-way debates – as well as a one-on-one Cameron-Miliband confrontation – will put the Scottish Nationalists alongside Labour, the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Greens, Plaid Cymru and Ukip.

The SNP had previously been excluded on the grounds that whatever its strength in Scotland, it was not standing in seats across the UK. But the abandonment of that argument has opened the way for the party to make its pitch to millions more people.

Alex Salmond has shown with his appearances on the BBC’s Question Time that having a Scottish focus is no barrier to making arguments which are popular elsewhere. Nicola Sturgeon now has the chance to do the same. The debates should also help give her a higher profile throughout the UK.

It is a major turnaround from the broadcasters’ original plan which was to have one head-to-head debate between Messrs Cameron and Miliband, another including the Lib Dems and a third with Ukip too.

And the SNP has Mr Cameron to thank. His reaction to that first proposal was to insist that if Ukip was included, the Greens had to be there too. No doubt that was more about creating obstacles to an agreement than ensuring the environmental voice was heard, but it also opened the door to demands for the SNP and Plaid to take part. Now they are all to feature, the demand is for Northern Ireland’s DUP to be included as well.

But the other controversy which Mr Cameron has created is over the timing of the debates. As the man with arguably most to lose, he does not want this year’s election to be dominated by the TV showdowns in the way the 2010 campaign was.

So he is calling for all the debates to take place before the election campaign starts in earnest.

He claims the three 2010 debates, which took place in the month before polling day, had “taken the life” out of the remainder of the campaign.

The BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky have proposed debates on April 2, 16 and 30 ahead of the May 7 poll. But Mr Cameron says he wants to “get them over with” before April.

No-one can tell how the debates will go – Alistair Darling’s triumph in the first referendum debate shows the unexpected is always possible.

But the move to include more parties in the process should be a positive for voters. And the Cameron-Miliband head-to-head still gives the opportunity to see the two would-be prime ministers put on the spot.

It may not compare with Strictly or The X Factor, but these TV programmes could still prove popular.