The "challengers" TV debate. Photo: Ken McKay/ITV via Getty Images
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Broadcasters must be more robust to tackle multiparty Britain

This was the campaign that saw the network media recognition of smaller parties - and they weren't quite prepared.

There will soon be shedloads of empirical research about this campaign, and the broadcasters will have their seminars about what went right and what went wrong as they trudge their way towards the next set of elections. But if I had the misfortune still to be stuck in those cheerless meeting rooms, there are items I’d want to be on the agenda based on a personal and subjective view of what we’ve just witnessed.

This was the campaign that saw the network media recognition of multiparty Britain. In previous elections there had been a tight focus on the three biggest parties, and it was refreshing to get a wider range of opinions that reflected more people in the UK. And yet there is a difference between a fair hearing for smaller parties and over-­representation, especially in the biggest events, which can distort the election outcome. My instinct is that an early mistake was made by adding Ukip to the list of major parties. It’s all very well talking about opinion-poll performance and European elections, but media representation has historically been based on the House of Commons – where Ukip won no seats in 2010.

Once you lost the anchor of the composition of the Commons and the 88 per cent of the vote won by the big three in 2010, and started looking at the transient polls and by-elections instead, the appearance of Ukip in the plans for leaders’ debates understandably provoked a challenge from the Greens and the nationalists. Although the Conservatives never really wanted debates at all, and were at times simply obstructive, they were right that allowing in only Ukip would have been unfair.

So, that then led to Plaid Cymru, which had entered the campaign with three MPs and only 165,000 votes, having two UK-wide debate appearances on a status equal with Ed Miliband’s. There would have been an unfairness in Wales in excluding them altogether; but the outcome felt disproportionate, and it particularly weighted the scales against Miliband in the contenders’ encounter. At least one senior broadcaster I spoke to is expressing unease at nationalist parties getting such prolonged network exposure in the debate series and, arguably, disrupting the overall balance of coverage.

There was also some injustice to Northern Ireland. I was one of the people who argued against the Irish parties being at the top table because I could see no way of including the DUP without featuring all the other contenders there, too, and 12-way debates would have been impossible. But, leaving aside the lack of visibility that annoyed Ulster voters, it slewed the UK campaign. Labour was asked endlessly about an SNP alliance, while the scarcity of DUP ­appearances helped the Tories avoid challenges about a deal with a party that has some startling views about social issues.

The broadcasters probably ended up being over-kind to the SNP. It was right that they were in at least one of the debates, and given full attention on BBC Scotland and STV, but it’s not clear why Nicola Sturgeon was granted additional UK set-piece interview slots when she could be voted for only in Scotland. There was an additional problem in the news bulletins where the SNP clips were almost entirely on their favoured territory about the power they would wield in a hung parliament. They were seldom heard talking about policy or defending their own record in government in Edinburgh. Across the board, there was too much chatter about what would happen after the election compared with coverage of manifesto issues.

The television campaign most came alive when it focused on the choice of who would be prime minister: the highlights were the Channel 4/Sky interviews with David Cam­eron and Ed Miliband, and the BBC Question Time that added Nick Clegg into that mix. It was particularly cheering to see what a difference it made having a passionate audience in Yorkshire, fuelled by the sense that they were taking part in something which mattered. That is why the broadcasters were right when they tried to protect as many of those defining moments as possible. The success of the highest-visibility Jeremy Paxman and David Dimbleby programmes underlines why executives should resist the argument in future that every debate has to feature everyone.

What the broadcasters need to preserve is their right to make judgements – in the way they construct the framework of the campaign as well as in their journalism. They have a public-service obligation to reflect democracy in action, but they shouldn’t shy away from making choices based on the evidence. It doesn’t do anybody any favours, least of all Natalie Bennett, to pretend that the Greens will be in government; or that we need to spend much time discussing Ukip’s policy on higher education. But with this comes an obligation to be more transparent about decision-making. It still hasn’t been properly explained why the Lib Dems were not in the contenders’ debate, and there was the mystery of why Nigel Farage got his own mini-Question Time when that was not part of the announced plans.

Fortunately for the broadcasters, though, the final lesson is about the indispensability of the old battalions. For all the partisan huff-and-puff of the press, and despite the hyping of digital and social media, it was most often network television and radio that drove the agenda. In this lacklustre campaign, that wasn’t always a blessing.

Roger Mosey is Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former BBC executive

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

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No, the battle in Momentum isn't about young against old

Jon Lansman and his allies' narrative doesn't add up, argues Rida Vaquas.

If you examined the recent coverage around Momentum, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was headed towards an acrimonious split, judging by the vitriol, paranoia and lurid accusations that have appeared online in the last couple days. You’d also be forgiven for thinking that this divide was between a Trotskyist old guard who can’t countenance new ways of working, and hip youngsters who are filled with idealism and better at memes. You might then be incredibly bemused as to how the Trotskyists Momentum was keen to deny existed over the summer have suddenly come to the brink of launching a ‘takeover bid’.

However these accounts, whatever intentions or frustrations that they are driven by, largely misrepresent the dispute within Momentum and what transpired at the now infamous National Committee meeting last Saturday.

In the first instance, ‘young people’ are by no means universally on the side of e-democracy as embodied by the MxV online platform, nor did all young people at the National Committee vote for Jon Lansman’s proposal which would make this platform the essential method of deciding Momentum policy.

Being on National Committee as the representative from Red Labour, I spoke in favour of a conference with delegates from local groups, believing this is the best way to ensure local groups are at the forefront of what we do as an organisation.

I was nineteen years old then. Unfortunately speaking and voting in favour of a delegates based conference has morphed me into a Trotskyist sectarian from the 1970s, aging me by over thirty years.

Moreover I was by no means the only young person in favour of this, Josie Runswick (LGBT+ representative) and the Scottish delegates Martyn Cook and Lauren Gilmour are all under thirty and all voted for a delegates based national conference. I say this to highlight that the caricature of an intergenerational war between the old and the new is precisely that: a caricature bearing little relation to a much more nuanced reality.

Furthermore, I believe that many people who voted for a delegates-based conference would be rather astounded to find themselves described as Trotskyists. I do not deny that there are Trotskyists on National Committee, nor do I deny that Trotskyists supported a delegates-based conference – that is an open position of theirs. What I do object is a characterisation of the 32 delegates who voted for a delegates-based conference as Trotskyists, or at best, gullible fools who’ve been taken in.  Many regional delegates were mandated by the people to whom they are accountable to support a national conference based on this democratic model, following broad and free political discussion within their regions. As thrilling as it might be to fantasise about a sinister plot driven by the shadow emperors of the hard Left against all that it is sensible and moderate in Momentum, the truth is rather more mundane. Jon Lansman and his supporters failed to convince people in local groups of the merits of his e-democracy proposal, and as a result lost the vote.

I do not think that Momentum is doomed to fail on account of the particular details of our internal structures, providing that there is democracy, accountability and grassroots participation embedded into it. I do not think Momentum is doomed to fail the moment Jon Lansman, however much respect I have for him, loses a vote. I do not even think Momentum is doomed to fail if Trotskyists are involved, or even win sometimes, if they make their case openly and convince others of their ideas in the structures available.

The existential threat that Momentum faces is none of these things, it is the propagation of a toxic and polarised political culture based on cliques and personal loyalties as opposed to genuine political discussion on how we can transform labour movement and transform society. It is a political culture in which those opposed to you in the organisation are treated as alien invaders hell-bent on destroying it, even when we’ve worked together to build it up, and we worked together before the Corbyn moment even happened. It is a political culture where members drag others through the mud, using the rhetoric of the Right that’s been used to attack all of us, on social and national media and lend their tacit support to witch hunts that saw thousands of Labour members and supporters barred from voting in the summer. It is ultimately a political culture in which our trust in each other and capacity to work together on is irreparably eroded.

We have a tremendous task facing us: to fight for a socialist alternative in a global context where far right populism is rapidly accruing victories; to fight for the Labour Party to win governmental power; to fight for a world in which working class people have the power to collectively change their lives and change the societies we live in. In short: there is an urgent need to get our act together. This will not be accomplished by sniping about ‘saboteurs’ but by debating the kind of politics we want clearly and openly, and then coming together to campaign from a grassroots level upwards.

Rida Vaquas is Red Labour Representative on Momentum National Committee.