Question Time: The BBC’s Obsession with Nigel Farage

I’ve begun down that slippery path of complaining to the BBC.  Don’t worry, it won’t become a habit, but yesterday’s Question Time was rather irritating.  The three topics discussed were state surveillance, Scottish independence and intervention in Syria.  However the Scottish independence issue was clearly at the forefront, the debate being held in Edinburgh with an audience of 16 and 17 year olds (due to the voting age for the referendum being reduced to 16).  If we accept this, can we agree that a panel consisting of four unionists, one advocate and one middle-ground is pretty uneven?  Scottish National Party MP Angus Robertson pointed this out but was dismissed by David Dimbleby, who argued that the audience was split 50-50 on the issue.  But if that’s the case then surely it should apply to the panel as well?

Yesterday, Scottish Green Party co-convener Patrick Harvie tweeted his irritation at the composition of the panel, which included no representatives from the Green Party nor the Liberal Democrats.  Despite the Greens being among the loudest voices in favour of independence, this wouldn’t need to be an issue if the other panelists represented a range of views relevant to the debate.  Instead, we get Nigel Farage and George Galloway.  I don’t wish to add my voice to the chorus of cries at “BBC Bias”, as I don’t think there’s anything malicious in their decisions of panelists.  What I do think is a problem is that entertainment seems to have become a greater priority than providing a good debate.  Farage was clearly chosen because of his recent misadventures in Scotland and Galloway because, well, he’s loud.  No doubt it was hoped that Galloway and Farage, sitting on opposing ends of the political spectrum, would go head-to-head in a ‘highly amusing’ shouting match.  What actually happened was something of an unholy alliance where they agreed on most issues.

This isn’t the first time Farage has been on Question Time.  In fact, according to this article  he has appeared more frequently than any other individual since the last general election -closely tailed by George Galloway.  Why is this?  Both UKIP and Respect do have representation (well, in England) so I don’t object to their inclusion from time to time, but I don’t think either figure is popular or relevant enough to warrant this sort of exposure.  I’m convinced that they only get invited on because they’re controversial enough to be entertaining but not so extreme as to draw immediate criticism and complaint.  But if they’re giving minor parties this level of exposure then it’s only fair it be divided equally to other parties with similar popularity – to the Greens also and, indeed, the BNP.

I guess the ultimate question is: What do we want from the BBC’s main show for political debate?  Entertaining pantomime or reasoned arguments?  It scares me that the answer isn’t clear.

(As an aside, I’m astonished at the level of condescension and scorn towards young people I saw on Twitter last night.  With a couple of exceptions, I thought the audience had very good points and expressed them well.  Should we not be allowed opinions?)

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The First Fringe Opinion Poll

Because this blog has been too quiet recently (my Geography exam went well today – just RMPS left on Monday), and because I’ve just discovered the exciting poll feature on WordPress – and also to see if anyone actually reads my blogs – I’ve decided to do a quick opinion poll. Political, of course. I may start adding these to most posts I make, if it’s relevant – “What would you rate this book/film”, “What do you think about X and Y developments?” Oh, if anyone actually votes that would be incredibly exciting!

But, for now:

Liberal Democrats win Eastleigh By-election

Yesterday’s by-election in Eastleigh, while perhaps lacking great strategic importance, seems to have summarised the state of British politics, half way into our experimental coalition.  The results were as follows:

Mike Thornton (Liberal Democrat) 13,342 (32.06%, -14.48%)

Diane James (UKIP) 11,571 (27.80%, +24.20%)

Maria Hutchings (Conservative) 10,559 (25.37%, -13.96%)

John O’Farrell (Labour) 4,088 (9.82%, +0.22%)

Danny Stupple (Independent) 768 (1.85%, +1.56%)

Dr Iain Maclennan (National Health Action Party) 392 (0.94%)

Ray Hall (Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party) 235 (0.56%)

Kevin Milburn (Christian Party) 163 (0.39%)

Howling Laud Hope (Monster Raving Loony Party) 136 (0.33%)

Jim Duggan (Peace Party) 128 (0.31%)

David Bishop (Elvis Loves Pets) 72 (0.17%)

Michael Walters (English Democrats) 70 (0.17%, -0.30%)

Daz Procter (Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts) 62 (0.15%)

Colin Bex (Wessex Regionalist) 30 (0.07%)

I’d expected to be wrong in my prediction that the Conservatives would win for the last week or so; I had underestimated the local popularity the Liberal Democrats possessed, Eastleigh being one of the few councils where they have managed to cling on to power since entering government.   I also underestimated the importance of individual candidates.  Still, you live and learn.

This is certainly good news for Nick Clegg, who I imagine will sleep easier with the relief of these results.  This is the first piece of good news in a long list of blows for the Liberal Democrats.  Whether this will become a turning point in their fortunes remains to be seen, although I highly doubt it.  Eastleigh is something of a stronghold for the Liberal Democrats – their greatest threat was to be dislodged by the Conservatives, who performed around 7% behind the Lib Dems in 2010.  Clearly, this never happened, but the Liberal Democrats’ share of the vote has significantly decreased, all the way from 46.5% to 32.06%.  This drop of 14% is, in fact, slightly greater than their decline in national polls since 2010.  So while a victory for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, they must not be complacent.  They have shown that oblivion might not be on the cusp of their political horizon, but let there be no doubt that an incredible uphill struggle lies ahead if they seek any respectable result in 2015.

The real victors, in my opinion, have been UKIP, who won their greatest ever share of the vote in an election.  This will undoubtedly provide evidence to Nigel Farage’s narrative that UKIP are a rising political force and, I have to admit, I’m wondering whether he is right.  A large proportion of UKIP’s vote is due to the protest factor, with the Liberal Democrats no longer the traditional ‘protest party’.  This phenomenon was seen in last year’s Bradford by-election, in which Respect’s George Galloway won with a significant majority.  Nevertheless, UKIP has established itself as a party with wide support.  If it maintains its current popularity in 2015 there is a good chance is will win its first MPs in the House of Commons, although it will suffer the same vote/seat ratio difference which has plagued the Liberal Democrats as a result of our First Past the Post voting system.  Nigel Farage will be very happy just now.

The two losers of this election, it gives me some pleasure to type, are the UK’s largest political forces, Labour and the Conservatives.  The Conservatives did respectfully, but David Cameron could really have used a victory to help his ailing popularity levels within his own party.  He will also probably be despondent that his declaration to hold a European Union referendum if winning the 2015 General Election has done nothing to stem the growth of UKIP.  Labour likewise should not be too discouraged, due to having a lack of a base to build on.  I’ve read analyses stating that less popular parties often tend to be marginalised in by-elections, which I’d imagine to be the case here.

Most political commentators have stated that by-elections are not of great overall importance, which is true, but they’re still very exciting to examine and pore over.

The Rise of UKIP

UKIP has been reaching unprecedented levels of popularity recently.  I mentioned this on my piece about opinion polling, but there’s since been further developments in three by-elections held across the country yesterday.  All were considered safe Labour seats before the election, and indeed, Labour held onto all three of them.  Nevertheless, the results make interesting reading:

Rotherham

Sarah Champion (Labour)                – 9,866 (46.25%, +1.62%)

Jane Collins (UKIP)                             – 4,648 (21.79%, +15.87%)

Marlene Guest (BNP)                             – 1,804 (8.46%, -1.96%)

Yvonne Ridley (Respect)                         – 1,778 (8.34%)

Simon Wilson (Conservative)                 – 1,157 (5.42%, -11.32%)

David Wildgoose (English Democrat)          – 703 (3.30%)

Simon Copley (Independent)               – 582 (2.73%, -3.58%)

Michael Beckett (Liberal Democrat)          – 451 (2.11%, -13.87%)

Turnout: 21,330 (33.63%, -25.37%)

 

Middlesbrough

Andy McDonald (Labour)                – 10,201 (60.48%, +14.60%)

Richard Elvin (UKIP)                     – 1,990 (11.80%, +8.10%)

George Selmer (Liberal Democrat)          – 1,672 (9.91%, -10.00%)

Ben Houchen (Conservative)                 – 1,063 (6.30%, -12.48%)

Turnout: 16,866 (25.91%, -25.44%)

 

Croydon North

Steve Reed (Labour)                          – 15,898 (64.71%, +8.69%)

Andy Stranack (Conservative)                 – 4,137 (16.84%, -7.28%)

Winston McKenzie (UKIP)                   – 1,400 (5.70%, +3.97%)

Marisha Ray (Liberal Democrat)          – 860 (3.50%, -10.48%)

Shasha Islam Khan (Green) 855          – (3.48%, +1.51%)

Turnout: 24,568 (26.4%, -34.25%)

 

 

The most obvious comment to be made about these results is the fantastic gains Labour has made, which is in line with their increases in opinion polls, and of course, the abysmal performances of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.  The Conservatives managed to perform modestly in Croydon North and terribly in the others; The Liberal Democrats were wiped out across the board.  Coming 8th in Rotherham… I may have underestimated just how unpopular the party is right now.  Supposedly no major party has ever survived such a poor by-election result.  Time will tell.

But back on topic, I think UKIP will be very happy with this result.  Coming second twice and then third is an incredible result for the party, and could indicate an approaching breakthrough into the House of Commons one day.  However, it could also be attributed to a phenomena known as ‘protest votes’, where the electorate do not want to vote for the current government, but are also wary of the opposition who are still fresh in their minds after previously being in government, so third parties tend to perform disproportionately well.  The Liberal Democrats have historically taken these votes, but now they are in government voters have sought out other parties.  This may explain Respect’s victory earlier this year in a by-election.

These ‘protest parties’ tend to do modestly well in national elections but rarely repeat their peaks during by-elections.  While UKIP have done extraordinarily well in some of these by-elections, in several they’ve not even kept hold of their deposit.  In short, it’s difficult to say whether these results mean UKIP is heading towards their first seats in parliament; they are certainly good news for the party, but don’t indicate that UKIP has broken into national politics quite yet.