Wednesday 21 April 2010

Fair Elections?

We hear a lot about how unfair elections can be in various parts of the world. However it is generally assumed that in the good old UK, the home of the mother of Parliaments and all that jazz, elections are naturally fair and above board. This is not really the case and over the past forty years or so, general elections have become progressively more and more unfair. And this year’s election will go down as the most blatantly unfair election in modern UK history.

The root of this unfairness is the way in which the media and in particular radio and TV treat the various parties standing in the election. The media on the whole behave as though the UK still has a two party system. Over the years the LibDems (the LIberal Democrats) and in Scotland the SNP (Scottish National Party) have show this to be manifestly untrue. The LibDems seem to have made a breakthrough this year and at least during the election campaign are getting more or less equal coverage as the Tories and New Labour. However this just shows up the arbitrary way in which our elections work and highlights even more the discrimination against all the other parties.

In other countries there are legal regulations about the amount of coverage that broadcasters must give to parties and candidates standing for election. In the UK whatever regulations there are amount to not very much and the key decisions are taken by the main broadcasters and the leaders of the three main political parties. And you can bet your bottom dollar that fairness to all is not a phrase that was ever uttered during these discussions. The result is that in an election that looks like it will be the closest in decades, the great British public is being offered a biased coverage of the campaign and denied the opportunity to fairly compare the merits and demerits of each party.

The parties that suffer most are the so-called minor parties. There are two types of “minor” parties in the UK. There are those, the Greens and UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) which seek representation across the UK. And then there are the parties that only operate in one of the constituent nations of the UK - SNP in Scotland and Plaid Cymri in Wales for example.

In some ways the UK wide minor parties suffer the most. Their leaders do not appear on the so-called Leaders’ Debates nor the Chancellors’ Debates which have become a key feature of this election. In addition, the main broadcasters do not give regular daily coverage to the campaigns by these so-called minor parties. While the leaders of the three main parties feature in almost every news broadcast on a daily basis, the Greens and UKIP are relegated to very limited appearances on the TV and radio. Thus name and visual recognition which is an essential part of modern elections is pretty much denied to them. The manifest unfairness of this is compounded by the boost that the increased coverage this year has given to the LIbDems - their polling figures have shot up dramatically. Why should the Greens and UKIP be denied this possible boost? It is not as if these parties are insignificant in voting share. In the European elections, which use Proportional Representation, both parties won respectable shares of the votes and opinion polls regularly show that significant numbers of electors support these two parties. And this is without the benefit of fair coverage.

In Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland the situation is different. Here the problem mainly resides in the failure of the main broadcasters to have adjusted to the new constitutional settlement in the UK. With the advent of devolution there are in effect four elections taking place. Since there is no English Parliament, in England this election is about education, health, social services, crime, transport as well as the economy, defence and foreign affairs. In the other parts of the UK, all the “domestic” issues are the responsibility of the devolved parliaments or assemblies. Which means that here in Scotland for example the UK election is really only about the economy, defence and international relations. However the main broadcasters who are all based in England hardly ever make this distinction and most of the UK wide broadcasts are in effect about the “English” election.

So we in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have to listen to daily coverage of what the main parties will or will not do for education, hospitals, the police etc, which have very little if any relevance to “our” election. This situation is particularly ludicrous in Northern Ireland where none of the three main UK parties are standing. Yet voters in Northern Ireland have to put up with all this coverage devoted to parties that none of them can vote for. Politics in Northern Ireland is pretty special and the main divide is still between the catholic/republican vote and the protestant/unionist vote. Within the province coverage will be reasonably fair with respect to the main Northern Irish parties, though yet again the Greens will probably lose out.

In Scotland and Wales the situation is less absurd, but more damaging. Since none of the main UK parties stand for election in Northern Ireland all this bias in UK wide broadcasts is likely to have little impact. Though one of the Unionist parties is in an alliance with the Tories. However in Wales and Scotland all three UK parties are standing and the extra coverage they get in the media is clearly unfair to the other parties. This bias and its potentially damaging effects is particularly acute in Scotland. Here the party of government in the Scottish Parliament is the SNP and according to which election you take as your reference point, the SNP is either the largest or the second largest party in Scotland. Yet the SNP are excluded from the kind of coverage that is given to the Tories, New Labour and the LibDems. I find it very hard to see how this blatant unfairness can be justified

It is no defence of this exclusion to claim that this is a UK wide election, since the issues in Scotland are different from those in England. Neither is it any kind of defence to argue that the election is about potential UK Prime Ministers. Given our first past the post system, unless you live in the constituency of one of the so-called potential Prime MInisters you cannot vote for them. Even then you can only vote for or against one of them. Which effectively excludes about 99% of the electorate from this great decision.

When the dust has settled and the results are in, just remember that media coverage of this election is the most biased and unfair ever in UK history. If this kind of favouritism took place in Russia, there would be an outburst of moral frenzy from our media and our three main UK political parties condemning such blatant bias. Yet when it happens here - why the same media and political elites are in on the act.

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