As a former Vice Chair of UKIP, and in 2005 Deputy Leader of Robert Kilroy-Silk’s short lived party Veritas, I learned very quickly about the importance of regular media coverage. Veritas was particularly difficult because at first candidates were not sure what the party stood for except dislike of the political class, and media coverage was focused on the personality of Kilroy, a chat show host and former Labour Minister. This played a large part in the party’s failure to win any seats in the 2005 general elections. You may achieve organisational miracles with unity, exciting policies and great candidates, but without wall-to-wall media you are all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Now let’s turn to the proposed Democracy 2015 party, announced by Andreas Whittam-Smith in the pages of the Independent around a fortnight ago. It has already fared badly in the media - launching via one national newspaper was a mistake - but can it expect better as it builds? I’m afraid it faces an up-hill climb. National newspapers tend to be highly partisan in their political coverage (even more so in the run-up to elections) and are never kind to small or alternative parties, which might challenge the main ones on the margins. Meanwhile, BBC rules on broadcast coverage in elections are very strict and effectively, in conjunction with the Westminster parties, suppress diversity in politics (as I have set out here, using the last Mayoral elections as an example). With no MPs already elected, the new party will almost certainly be barred from all TV and radio debates and from any form of equality of news coverage. Whatever the party does, it will be almost invisible in 2014 and 2015 when set against the avalanche of daily media for the 'main' parties.
Just add up the national publicity for Tory, Labour and Lib Dems for the last month and then do the same for UKIP and the Greens: the small parties get nowhere near 1%. Any new party is likely to fare even worse. Sure, Democracy 2015 might get the occasional good piece, but by and large there will be weeks and months of silence whatever it does. The diversity permitted by the French presidential election, with far greater coverage in debates and on TV programmes for all those candidates standing (and international monitoring before and after) is completely missing in the UK.
How will this lack of media coverage affect the Democracy 2015 project? First off, it will damage its ability to attract good candidates. Those 'entrepreneurs and brain surgeons' that Mr. Whittam Smith is understandably keen to recruit have reputations and much to lose by tying their standard to what will be treated, probably unfairly, as a rotten and sinking ship, or just ignored. On a personal level, I have noted that the main fear of new candidates who have made a success of their lives in other fields is that they will 'look stupid' by failing to get a large vote. They want upfront guarantees through organisation and cash that they will be heard.
The Greens and UKIP have a cause, some would say fanaticism, which unites their fractious members and the survivors develop thick skins over a long period. The cause of Democracy 2015 appears to be a dislike for professional politicians, and there are serious issues around how it proposes to consult the public over policy, as Niki Seth-Smith sets out. It is questionable whether that understandable but negative ‘dinner party discussion’ position is enough to attract serious professionals to put their careers and reputations on the line. Successful and senior people also have a low tolerance threshold for the accountability and media issues of politics (personal questions, media attention not based on a company press release, public attacks by former staff and partners, the scorn directed by opponents). They are used to a lifetime of gathering respect and being obeyed: the shock of The Thick of It treatment can kill off their interest almost before it begins. You cannot insulate them from this rough and tumble, nor can you control or sanitise it, but they often respond to it as Ceaucescu of Romania did on the balcony of the Presidential Palace at Christmas 1989 – incomprehending and bewildered as he was heckled and jeered.
To make Democracy 2015 work, a vast sum of money would need to be spent in 2014 and early 2015 entirely on spec to counter the silence or attacks - regular advertising in all the local and national newspapers that will take it, offices and staffs in every constituency, mailings to all voters again and again, campaigns starting very very early to establish awareness. Everywhere. This would have to prove the sincerity and engagement of all candidates and supporters over a long period and gain profile outside the usual channels. Media coverage drives support right from the start – serious prospective candidates will already ask themselves why this initiative has only appeared in The Independent in print a couple of times (with a page on their website) and not even been advertised in all national newspapers. By seeming to limit donations to £50, Mr Whittam Smith has effectively put an end to the possibilities of advertising, even in his own newspaper.
If such a party does not address these questions, it will simply attract people who have extreme and one-issue, but very varied, axes to grind: parking or public sector pensions, bankers salaries or immigration. They will want to spend their own little amount of cash to express these views above all else and will not take kindly to being ordered around by those with little money to spend or unpaid young interns, who appear to be make up most of the team.
The party's organisers need to answer specific questions about core ideology, party structure, funding, media, and the actual mechanisms they will use in obtaining quality candidates and their involvement in policy and at what stage. The idea that ‘ideological differences are small these days’, put forward by the project, is deeply naïve and applies only to the political class. Out there in the real world, there are massive differences on the issues of the day. Another party doing the same is not a harbinger of people power but more of the same: in that event, the media coverage will be one of terminal disunity in a damp squib, withdrawals and the associated gleeful trampling on the grave of the cause by vested interests. The idea is worth more than that.