Should there be UK Election TV debates?

Today is a big milestone in the UK political calendar. There are 100 days of campaigning left before the country goes to the polls on May 7th in what is looking like the most unpredictable UK election since 1974. There are many questions to be answered including Will there be leader’s debates on TV? And if so who’ll take part?
Unlike in the US, leaders debates did not occur in the UK until the last election in 2010 where there were three debates – on ITV, Sky News and the BBC – between then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg. The debates attracted TV audiences of 9.3 million (ITV), 4.1 million (Sky News) and 8.1 million (BBC) (Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley, the British General Election of 2010, page 266) and according to the same book (page 267) “The prevailing view among broadcasters and politicians…was that the debates had been a success and that they had come to stay”. So why with 100 days of the campaign left are the debates not a certainty to happen again? And would that be a good or a bad thing?
The event that has caused the problem has been the rise of a fourth party in UK politics, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Since 2013 there have been seven by-elections in Great Britain. UKIP has won two, come second by less then 5% in two, and second in the other three. They also won last years European Parliament elections in the UK. The broadcasters (the three that covered the 2010 debates plus Channel 4) responded to the rise of UKIP by proposing a “4-3-2” plan. One debate would have four participants – the 2010 trio plus UKIP leader Nigel Farage – one would have the same participants as 2010 and the third would be a US style two headed debate between Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband.
And then the problems started. The Green Party (who have one MP – who unlike UKIP’s two MPs* – won her seat at the 2010 Election as a Green) felt that if UKIP were in a debate, their leader Natalie Bennett should be too. And enter in a bizarre alliance, David Cameron, who said he would not take part in the debates unless the Greens were there. (I should explain that the reason we didn’t have debates in the UK pre 2010 is that the Prime Minister of the day always turned them down. We only got debates in 2010 because Gordon Brown was so far behind in the polls he felt he had nothing to lose.) So it looked like the debates were off.
So the broadcasters got their thinking caps on – and came up with a “7-7-2” plan. Two of the debates would include SEVEN parties – the four already in plus the Greens, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru – the latter two also wanting in despite the fact they are regional not national parties – while the third would be a Cameron v Miliband head to head. However, this plan is causing trouble too. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg wants to take part in all three debates and other parties want in – among them the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland. Mebyon Kernow (Sons of Cornwall) the Cornish Nationalists also want in – even though they only stand in six seats out of 650 – and even more ridiculously the Monster Raving Loony Party want to take part. The debates are disintegrating into a shambles. The broadcasters – showing breath taking arrogance – are bullying parties into taking part saying if any party does not turn up the debates will go ahead with the absentee party represented by an empty chair. But should the debates take place? In my opinion no.
First of all five parties might be too many. Seven would be. As the British General Election of 2010 (page 265) put it “The debate format had its limitations. Chiefly arising from tackling eight or more substantial topics in under 90 minutes”. And that was with three participants. Imagine the chaos with seven politicians trying to get a word in. Also a debate works best with just two participants – which is why they work in US Presidential elections and also where there is a “Yes or No” choice like last year’s Scottish independence referendum. They are not suitable for the multi party democracy the UK has been since at least 1974.
However my third reason is most important. I was never for the debates and the events of 2010 proved that. They had the effect of totally overshadowing the rest of the campaign. More seriously they turned politics into a game show – the equivalent of reality TV shows like the X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. But politics is too important for that. Being good on TV should not be the most important quality for a Prime Minister. And it isn’t. Being good on TV won’t help a Prime Minister when it comes to making the most important decision he/she has to make: Should I send my country’s troops into war? Two of the UK’s last three Prime Ministers -Tony Blair and Cameron – got this wrong, although in Cameron’s case he was rescued by Parliament refusing to back his plan to attack Syria.
The other point is that the UK does NOThave a Presidential system. On May 7th we are electing a Government for the next five years – not a Prime Minister. And the debates in 2010 had the effect of giving more publicity to party leaders who are over exposed anyway.
I hope the parties don’t succumb to the broadcasters’ bullying and the debates don’t happen. For those who use the US as an example, the first presidential debates in the US were between Kennedy and Nixon in 1960. They did not happen again until Ford debated Carter in 1976. There is no reason whatsoever why they have to become a regular event here. Remember the broadcasters only care about ratings. We have imported a lot of things from the US. But not everything that works in the US is suitable for the UK. TV debates are one of the things that aren’t.
*UKIP’s two MPs were elected in 2010 as Conservatives. Last year they defected to UKIP, resigning their seats to fight them under their new party’s colours. Both retained their seats.

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Why the Big Bash won’t work in England

One of the good things about January – and there are few – is to wake up in the morning and find there is live sport on TV. This is because January is “Australia month” with live sport from Down Under – which is 11 hours ahead of us – on UK TV. Apart from the Australian Open one of the main highlights has been the Big Bash League (BBL) Australia’s domestic 20 20 cricket competition which has provided great entertainment and which has had much higher crowds than its English equivalent the T 20 Blast. Critics both here and Australia say the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) should try and emulate the BBL but the facts are that this is that this is impossible to do.
First of all the biggest advantage Australia has over the UK is its climate. Anybody who watches Wimbledon will know the UK summer can produce very hot sunshine (1976 for example) or very heavy rain (1997 which was so bad the first round was still being played on day six) or something in between. An extreme example was 1975 when on June 2nd parts of the UK saw snow. Buxton in Derbyshire – which is at altitude – saw an inch of snow. The fact is the UK climate is totally unpredictable and would hinder any attempt to emulate the BBL here.
Another problem is that the BBL is a city-based franchise event while in the UK cricket is county based. A lot of people would like the ECB to bring city based franchises to the UK but it just won’t work. First of all most of Australia’s population lives in or near cities while most of the UK’s does not. And the cities are losing population. One way to measure this is the number of MPs each city elects to Parliament (which is based on population. If population goes up a city gets more MPs when the boundaries are reviewed. If population goes down it gets less MPs.) At the 1955 General Election the five biggest cities in England (London, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester) elected 103, 13, 6, 9 and 9 MPs respectively. At this year’s General Election London will elect 77, Birmingham 9, Leeds 5, Liverpool 4 and Manchester 3 – reflecting the fact that in the last 60 years the population movement has been from city to suburb. City teams will disenfranchise most of the population. And as for franchises – in the UK it is a no-no. The one US style movement of a sports team in a major UK sport proves this. In 2004 Wimbledon Football Club moved to the new town of Milton Keynes. It caused so much uproar Wimbledon fans formed their own team – AFC Wimbledon – which has done very well and is now just one division below the Milton Keynes Dons who are one of the most hated teams in the UK. No one will dare do that again.
The other difference between England and Australia is that cricket is the most popular sport in Australia. Admittedly that is by default. Football is more popular but their fans are split between four codes – soccer, rugby union, rugby league and Australian Rules football – and as each of them has its own “heartland” it means that in Australia cricket is the only sport that unites the country. In the UK soccer is by far the most popular sport so it gets the publicity and the money cricket gets in Australia.
And that is why the BBL is on free to air (FTA) TV in Australia while its UK equivalent is on Sky – a pay TV channel. FTA channels do not like sport unless it is a huge event like the Football World Cup or the Olympic Games. Cricket is not popular enough to be on a UK FTA prime time scene dominated by soap operas and reality TV shows – however much some people in cricket wish it could happen they have to face reality.
That doesn’t mean we can’t learn things from Australia. Since T 20 cricket is aimed at attracting schoolchildren to the sport it should be played when the schools are on holiday – in England’s case late July/August. To have a sport aimed at children being played when they are at school is nonsense. Also the ECB needs to look at prices. If a family of four wanted to watch a BBL game in Melbourne it would cost them $AUS 42.50 (or £22.69 in UK money). To watch a T20 Blast match in Leeds it would set the same family back £74. The counties should regard T 20 as a “loss leader” not a “cash cow”. As they are all subsidised by the ECB they don’t have to make money anyway so why not make it cheap for a family with children to watch like they do in Australia?
If I was running T 20 here it would be played in late July/August with the 18 teams split into three groups of six playing four teams once and their local rivals twice -making it six games per team plus Quarter Finals Semi Finals and a best of three Final. I would get rid of Finals Day – the day where the Semi Finals and Final are played. It goes on far too long – from 11am to 10 pm – for the attention span of children – who as I keep saying are T 20s main audience.
While England’s T 20 will never be as popular as the BBL it could definitely do better than it has done. It is time – to quote former UK Prime Minister John Major – to “go back to basics”. The format I’m proposing is more or less what it was when T 20 launched so successfully back in 2003. But the counties got greedy and have paid the price. Going back to few matches in a short window is T 20s beat chance of being popular here. Everywhere else in the world does it this way. Why can’t we in England?

How to end tennis equal pay arguments

The first Grand Slam event of the tennis year – the Australian Open – starts in sunny Melbourne on Monday (and when your home town is covered in snow – as mine is – you notice the sunny weather). A certain prediction is that sometime in 2015 some sexist will moan about men and women getting equal prize money at the Grand Slams even though it has existed at all Grand Slams since 2007. The worst example of sexist sports writing in 2014 came from the UK journalist Matthew Syed who wrote this rubbish “To deprive (Roger) Federer of income by handing it to female players is not far from daylight robbery”. Oh god where do you start with this one? First of all when equal pay was introduced the women’s prize money went UP rather than the men’s going DOWN so men did not lose income. Secondly Federer’s career prize money (up to January 12 2015) is $88,691,538. To say someone who has earned more than $88 million is being deprived of income is a joke and an insult to millions of poor people worldwide. That remark is so offensive I’m amazed this nonentity is still in employment – even allowing for the fact it is very difficult to get sacked in UK sport – even for racists and rapists as recent events in UK football show.
But why do sexists still moan about equal pay in tennis? The excuse they use is that men play best of five sets and women play best of three so it is unfair. This ignores the fact that the three set limit was imposed on the current women who have repeatedly asked to play five sets – and been turned down by officials. It also ignores the fact that women have played five set matches before – in fact in two different eras.
The first time women played five set matches was between 1891 and 1901 at the US National Championships. During that period five women’s Finals went to five sets played by seven different women. One woman – Elisabeth Moore – played three and another – Juliette Atkinson – played two. Yet in 1902 the United States Lawn Tennis Association – over the objections of some women – cut women’s matches down to three sets because of “concern about females overexerting themselves” (“Playing With the Boys by Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano pages 11 and 168). The next time five set matches for women occurred was in the 1990s. From 1984-1998 the Final of the season ending championships was best of five sets. Three Finals lasted that long and Steffi Graf played in (and won) two of them. After the 1990 Final between Monica Seles and Gabriela Sabatini – the first women’s five setter since 1901 – an article in Tennis ’91 (page 79) said “Women are capable of playing longer… the Final went to three hours 47 minutes of high quality competition”. That was 25 years ago. The woman athlete of today is fitter and stronger than her counterpart of 25 years ago (this also applies to the men) so there is no reason they can’t play five sets.
So why won’t the officials let them? I suspect TV doesn’t want the early days of Grand Slams – which go on long enough as it is – to increase in length. But there is an easy solution here. Since it is equality we are aiming for why not have this rule for Grand Slams. The first four rounds should be best of three sets for both genders. The Quarter-Finals onwards should be best of five sets for both genders. This would cut down overlong male matches in the first week (Like the Isner v Mahnut match at the 2010 Wimbledon that went to 70-68 in the fifth) while preserving the five set format which in my opinion is important. Sometimes long sport is the best sport – the five day cricket match, the five set tennis match and the seven game play off series being three examples. It should be preserved.
Of course some sexists would moan even if the women played five sets. They would say the men’s matches last longer so they should be paid more but that is not always true. In a combined male-female event in Beijing last year the men’s Final was won 6-0 6-2 by Novak Djokovic while the women’s Final was won 6-4 2-6 6-3 by Maria Sharapova. No one was calling for Maria to win more than Novak even though her match lasted far longer. Sexists argue that men’s TV ratings are higher but again not always so. The 2002 Wimbledon Women’s Final between the Williams sisters earned a Nielsen rating of 4.6 in the US while the Men’s Final the same year between Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian had a rating between 2.6 and 3.1.(McDonagh and Pappano page 250). Hewitt is Australian and Nalbandian is Argentinian. That proves in sport nationality as well as gender is a factor in delivering ratings.
But does all this matter? Yes it does. You cannot get rid of sexism in society without getting rid of it in sport. Too often sport is used to justify sexism in the non-sporting arena. In 1975 UK MP Ronald Bell – one of a tiny number of MPs to oppose the Sex Discrimination Bill – used gender segregation in sport to justify his theory that banning sex discrimination was an absurdity. More recently commentators on the Daily Telegraph website have used the fact that men and women are separated in sport as a reason for keeping female soldiers out of frontline combat. And last month UK journalists Elizabeth Day and Jonathan Maitland were debating equal pay for women on Sky News and Maitland asked Day if women tennis players should get equal pay. Amazingly Day said no. Funny how sport can brainwash a feminist (Day writes for liberal left UK papers like the Guardian and the Observer) into going against her own principles. Would she accept less pay than her male co-workers? Doubt it.
One other thought. Would you tell Serena Williams she is too weak to play five sets? Because I wouldn’t…

Who should win the Ballon d’or?

Welcome to 2015! I hope everybody had a merry Christmas and a happy new year. But now it is back to normal – as I found out on Monday when I had my first unwanted phone call (some guy trying to sell double glazing) and I switched on Sky News and saw Ed Miliband speaking and thought “Oh god four months of this to go before the UK’s General Election”. However, back to normal means award ceremonies – and as the first one of the year is the FIFA Ballon D’or awards on Monday I thought I would write on who should win – and how we the people can embarrass Sepp Blatter.
The main award is the Ballon D’or (“Golden Ball”) which is awarded to the FIFA male player of the year (not the female one. Women aren’t worthy of winning the Ballon D’or apparently.) The three contenders – who would all be worthy winners – are Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Manuel Neuer. But who should win?
It is important to remember that we are not considering them on their careers, but just their from in 2014. In that case Messi must be the outsider (which shows how strong the field is).Although he scored 58 goals in 2014 Barcelona did not win a major trophy last year and Argentina did not win the World Cup. For some reason which must remain a mystery he was voted the tournament’s best player but even Messi did not agree with that. A great player perhaps football’s GOAT (Greatest of all time) but not the best in 2014.
The other two are harder to separate. Ronaldo won the Champions League and Copa del Rey* with Real Madrid and scored 61 goals in 2014. Neuer won the World Cup with Germany and the Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal* with Bayern Munich. They met three times in 2014 with Ronaldo’s Real beating Neuer’s Bayern 1-0 and 4-0 in the Champions League Semi-Final (Ronaldo scored two goals) but Neuer’s Germany beat Ronaldo’s Portugal 4-0 during the World Cup. But who should win?
To my mind it has to be Ronaldo as the Champions League is a meritocracy but the World Cup is not. Every player can win the Champions League provided he is good enough to attract the attention of a team that can win it. The World Cup is an accident of birth. If you are born in San Marino you can win the Champions League if you are good enough. You have no chance of winning the World Cup. To my mind that is not fair. That dinosaur Michel Plattini thinks a German World Cup winner should get the award but it is not Ronaldo’s fault that Portugal weren’t good enough to win the World Cup. In fact if it wasn’t for Ronaldo they wouldn’t have qualified for the tournament in the first place. The fact that Portugal weren’t good enough to win should not be held against him. For the sake of fairness Ronaldo should win.
Talking of Neuer, the Sky Sports website is making a fool of itself by saying he would be the first goalkeeper to win the award since Lev Yashin in 1963. Actually a goalkeeper won the award only last year – but that was Nadine Angerer, a woman and obviously she doesn’t count (would it kill Sky to insert the word “male”?)
That brings me on to the women’s award. Three nominations here too – Marta, Nadine Kessler, and Abby Wambach. In one sense this award is harder to consider – no World Cup or European Championship for the women last year – plus a lack of TV coverage makes the contenders harder to assess. But the fact that one player should not have been nominated makes it easier. Wambach is a great player. But she was not great in 2014. In fact the US website Soccerwire.com says she should be dropped from the US team. Hardly the form of a player of the year. Quite why Kim Little the American League MVP was not nominated is a mystery.
Which leaves us with Kessler and Marta. Like the male award the key is the Champions League where Kessler’s Wolfsburg beat Marta’s Tyreso in the Final. Add to this a Bundesliga win and the fact that UEFA have already voted Kessler the beat player in Europe and it is clear that this award should be more clear cut than the male one. And unlike the male one it should be a German victory.
But Kessler should not be the only female player to win an award. Another award is the Puskas award which is for the best goal of 2013-14. The three nominations are Robin van Persie, James Rodriguez… and Stephanie Roche an Irishwoman. Her goal is magnificent (watch it on You tube if you haven’t seen it) and it deserves to win on merit. Besides as Sepp Blatter hates women the thought of him presenting Roche with this award is too good to resist. Unlike the other awards this one is by public vote so let’s all go to http://www.fifa.com/ballon-dor/puskas-award/ vote for Stephanie Roche and hand the sexist football establishment a humiliating defeat. You know it makes sense…
*the Spanish and German equivalents of the FA Cup.