Nigel Dodds is deputy leader of the DUP. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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BBC rejects the DUP's demand to be included in the TV debates

The Democratic Unionist Party's request to participate in the BBC's seven-way panel has been rejected.

It looks like the Democratic Unionist Party's request to be included in the BBC's seven-way televised leaders' debate panel has been rejected.

The Northern Irish party was outraged when it was not invited to participate in the broadcaster's new proposal for the debates, and wrote to the BBC demanding to be invited on. The party's Westminster representative, Nigel Dodds MP, called the party's omission "ludicrous" and pointed out that it has "more seats than Plaid, SNP & Greens", who have been invited to the debates.

But it looks like Dodds' fury has not found much sympathy at the Beeb. The Director General Tony Hall has rejected the DUP's request. The BBC reports that he told the party that he saw no reason to go back on the decision not to include them.

Replying in a letter to the party, Hall said the current panel plan complies with the BBC's impartiality obligations and so the broadcaster is not obliged to include the DUP as well. He is apparently writing a further letter to justify the BBC's decision not to include Northern Irish representation in general in the debates.

In response, the party's leader and First Minister in Northern Ireland Peter Robinson tweeted that the BBC's response was "irrational":

According to the BBC's Norman Smith, the DUP is now planning on getting lawyers involved.

It will be interesting to see how the Prime Minister responds to this development in the ongoing debate debate (the phrase "debategate" is probably not far off). He told the BBC's Today programme this week that he would like to see representation of Northern Ireland on the panel and continues to be reticent about taking part himself. Will he use Hall's decision as yet another excuse not to participate?

Update, 11.50

The BBC and ITV have released a joint statement regarding the Northern Ireland parties:

In separate letters, ITV and the BBC have written to Peter Robinson and set out the reasons for not including the DUP in either network debate. Both the BBC and UTV plan dedicated debates in Northern Ireland involving all the larger Northern Ireland parties.

The BBC’s Director-General, Tony Hall, said: “We would not be fulfilling our obligations of impartiality to the voters of Northern Ireland if we were to invite one of the Northern Ireland parties but not all the others, which also have substantial support in Northern Ireland.”

An ITV spokesperson said: “We take the view that these proposals best meet the objective of delivering a series of relevant and valuable political debates for viewers across the UK. We are satisfied that it is in the public interest to proceed with these proposals as they now stand.”

The broadcasters point out that voters who live in Northern Ireland have a different set of choices from voters elsewhere. The five major parties in Northern Ireland are all different from those in the rest of the UK. In Northern Ireland the main parties are the DUP, Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP and the Alliance Party. BBC Northern Ireland and UTV plan debates involving those parties and all viewers in Northern Ireland will be able to see them.

If the DUP were included in the network debates it would be necessary to include all the other major Northern Ireland parties too. Including only one, or some, of the Northern Ireland parties would be unfair and discriminatory to the rest. Including all the major Northern Ireland parties in the network programmes would mean having 12 participants - and 97 per cent of viewers, in the rest of the UK, would not be able to vote for at least five of those 12 parties. The broadcasters say that such an arrangement would be disproportionate and not in the wider interests of viewers throughout the UK.

The proposed structure of the debates is fair to all voters, letting everyone see the leaders of the major parties they can vote for:

  • In the network debates all voters in England, Wales and Scotland will be able to see all the main choices available to them on election day.
  • In the Northern Ireland debates all voters in Northern Ireland will be able to see all the main and different choices available to them on election day.

The broadcasters today reiterated that the network debates will go ahead even if any of the invited leaders decline to participate.

The broadcasters said: “We are proposing that the debates should happen within the campaign period at a time when the parties will be setting out policies in their manifestos and when the audience is fully engaged with the election. The 2015 campaign will be nearly six weeks long and there is plenty of time for three debates to be held without overshadowing the rest of the campaign.”

“The proposed dates for the network debates are 2, 16 and 30 April. The order of the debates is to be discussed with the parties. In the event that any of the invited party leaders decline to participate, debates will take place with the party leaders who accept the invitation.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

***

As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.