David Cameron during the 2010 leaders' debates. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why the Tories might demand the Greens are included in the TV debates

They hope the inclusion of Green leader Natalie Bennett would boost her party at the expense of Labour and the Lib Dems. 

For months, the Conservatives have responded to calls from Labour and the Lib Dems to agree to a repeat of the TV election debates by saying that they are unwilling to begin negotiations until after the conference season. This has aroused the natural suspicion that the Tories, who partly blame the 2010 debates for their failure to win a majority, are seeking to prevent them from happening at all. 

It is the fear that the debates would advantage one or more of his opponents that explains Cameron's hesistancy. Labour figures regard them as an opportunity for Ed Miliband to speak directly to the country, unmediated by a hostile press, and as a means of countering the Tories' financial advantage. Having performed credibly against Cameron at PMQs in his four years as leader of the opposition, they are confident that Miliband would surpass expectations. As the papers demonise him as the most dangerous man in Britain, voters may warm to the moderate figure who wants to freeze their energy bill and build more homes. It is Cameron, as both the Tories and Labour recognise, who has the most to lose. 

In an attempt to end the impasse, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky News have published a joint proposal this morning. They suggest:

- One head-to-head debate between David Cameron and Ed Miliband - the two leaders who could become prime minister - co-produced by Sky News and Channel 4 and chaired by Jeremy Paxman. 

- One debate between Cameron, Miliband and Nick Clegg, produced by the BBC and presented by David Dimbleby.

- One debate between Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Nigel Farage, produced and broadcast by ITV and chaired by Julie Etchingham. 

The most notable point is the exclusion of the Greens. Like Ukip, they have one MP (although Farage's party may soon add another in the Rochester and Strood by-election), and have polled as high as 7 per cent in some recent surveys (sometimes ahead of the Lib Dems), but the broadcasters are unwilling to make room for them.

This contrasts with the plan floated earlier this year by Cameron, which envisaged one debate between the five main UK parties (including the Greens) and one debate between himself and Miliband. Cameron said then: "I'm very keen to examine all the formats that we could have and I've suggested that perhaps we should have one debate with all the parties in, so that everyone can have their say, and perhaps we could have a debate where the two people who could actually be prime minister debate directly with each other.

"I don't think you could have a party like Ukip, without an MP, without the Greens, who have got an MP. So there are quite a lot of issues that have to be ironed out."

As several Tories told me at the time, there is a specific incentive for them to ensure the Greens are included. They hope that the addition of leader Natalie Bennett would boost her party at the expense of Labour and the Lib Dems, creating a split in the left-wing vote to match that on the right. 

In response to the broadcasters' proposal, No.10 has said: "We note the request and we will respond accordingly." It is worth asking whether Cameron will demand the inclusion of the Greens as a condition of the debates taking place. 

Meanwhile, Farage has welcomed the announcement, while leaving open the possibility of a second debate featuring him. He tweeted: "Decision is better than it could have been. If political landscape continues to change we would expect and ask for inclusion in 2nd debate."

But the Lib Dems have responded much less favourably, criticising the proposed exclusion of Clegg from one of the debates. A spokesman said: 

The Liberal Democrats have long argued that the debates last time round were of huge benefit to our democratic process and engaged millions of voters.

The Liberal Democrats therefore welcome the fact that the broadcasters are seeking to make progress to ensure that the debates happen again in 2015.

The Liberal Democrats, like the Labour Party, have publicly said that we would be prepared to sign up to the same 3-3-3 system we had in 2010.

We do not accept the proposal that the Liberal Democrats, as a party of government, should be prevented from defending our record in one of the TV debates.

That is the case we will make strongly in the negotiations that will now take place and we urge the other parties to join us around the negotiating table without excuse or delay.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.