Opinion

Why the BBC got it right the first time on the Senedd election debate

05 Apr 2021 4 minutes Read
2016’s Senedd election debate. Picture by the BBC

Ifan Morgan Jones

I have quite a bit of sympathy for the BBC editors and executives who have had to decide which political parties to include in their big Senedd leadership debate on 29 April.

Restrict the numbers and they would be met with howls of protest by smaller parties claiming that the ‘big three’ in Wales are being given a monopoly on airtime.

Throw the doors open to everyone and suddenly you have a mess of a debate with no single party leader able to say more than a few words.

The BBC originally decided only to invite Labour, the Conservatives, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats. Then, after a barrage of online complaints by their supporters, decided to include Abolish the Assembly.

The problem the BBC have now is that by inviting Abolish the Assembly to take part they have made a qualitative judgement call, based on limited evidence.

Abolish’s claim to be there is that the last few YouGov polls have put them on the 7% threshold that could perhaps win them a regional Senedd seat.

Since Abolish has no record at the ballot box at all – they have never won a single election, anywhere, at any level – these poll numbers form the entire basis for their inclusion.

But a poll commissioned by BBC Wales themselves only a month ago put the party on 4%, less than they got in 2016.

And with a margin of error of 3% on YouGov polls their momentum could exist entirely in the realm of a methodological quirk. We just don’t know.

The problem of course is that including a party – any party – based on presumed support can then translate into the real thing as they are given a platform that others aren’t afforded. The BBC will have inadvertently put their finger on the dial.

Coverage

But the bigger headache for the BBC is that by letting Abolish in this then opens the doors for a chorus of complaints from other political parties who have perhaps a better argument for being there.

The Greens have a strong case for inclusion, with polling placing them at between 3-8% in the regional polls over the last two years, a similar span to Abolish.

Unlike Abolish they have a record at the ballot box – in fact, the Senedd is the only legislature on mainland Britain where they are not represented in some form.

It could be argued that the lack of coverage the Greens get compared with whatever far-right populist party is the flavour of the month has always been one of the oddest quirks of UK politics.

But then if the Greens are included, what about Reform UK? Under their previous name of the Brexit Party, they are the only party apart from Labour to win an election in Wales in recent times, fewer than two years ago.

And why not UKIP? At the last Senedd election they won 12.5% of the vote and seven seats, more than the Liberal Democrats. Is it their fault all their MS but one have abandoned them in the meantime?

Invite

If this is a headache for the BBC, I think that it’s probably one of their own making. Their initial judgement call, not to invite Abolish, was probably the correct one and they should have stuck with it.

And before anyone says that this article is left-wing bias against the right, I should point out that it isn’t Plaid Cymru or Labour who will be the losers as a result of Abolish’s inclusion in the debate – but the Conservatives.

Abolish are standing in a number of key Conservative target seats such as Wrexham, Brecon and Radnorshire and the Vale of Glamorgan and could eat into their devo-sceptic vote, keeping Labour and the Lib Dems in situ.

Likewise, the inclusion of the Greens, second-favourites of many in Plaid Cymru and Labour, could eat into their votes in the same way – which is probably why the Conservatives are calling for their inclusion.

Personally, I think the only way to keep the process completely fair would be to say that an invitation depends on a proven record where it counts – the ballot box.

That is, if you won at least a seat at the last election, and haven’t completely imploded as a party in the meantime, then you get an invite to take part in the leadership debate.

That would then encourage any start-up party to win where it counts – not in generating Twitter hype or Facebook likes but on the ground in communities, knocking on doors and getting voters to the polls.

The BBC got it right the first time, and should reverse course and stick to it.

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