What are ITV playing at excluding Jo Swinson from its leaders’ debate?

Jo Swinson has a greater mandate than any Liberal Democrat leader to participate in televised debates

Chuka Umunna
Monday 04 November 2019 18:31
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Jo Swinson says Lib Dems may take legal action over TV debates

Dame Carolyn McCall is one of the most impressive business women I’ve ever met and arguably one of the UK’s most senior and successful. Having risen through the ranks of the Labour-supporting Guardian Media Group to become its CEO, she went on to lead easyJet in 2010, becoming one of just five female CEOs in the FTSE 100. In 2017 she was also appointed as a non-executive board member at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy by the then Conservative business secretary Greg Clarke. She moved to become the CEO of ITV in 2018.

Dame Carolyn is widely regarded as a role model for many women in leadership and has said “we need to inspire the next generation of women leaders”. She clearly takes this seriously and, with regard to ITV’s own record on equality and diversity on and off screen, has said ITV is “focused on on-screen [diversity] … but we have more to do”. In ITV’s latest annual report the company declares: “We want to increase social mobility, while also improving and promoting better representation across gender.” It goes on to say “through our programmes, channels, workforce and services, and by working in partnership with the production community, we aim to ensure we are relevant and accessible and reflect modern society”.

It is therefore extraordinary that ITV should announce last Friday that it will be hosting a head-to-head debate on 19 November between the two men leading the Labour and Conservative parties, to the exclusion of the only woman – Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson – who leads a UK-wide political party that has any chance of being in the government of this country. The decision sends a terrible message when it comes to equality.

“Surely you are not arguing Jo Swinson should be included in the debate simply because she is a woman?” is a question I was ironically asked by an ITV news outlet yesterday. Of course not. Under section 6.2 of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code “due weight must be given to the coverage of parties and independent candidates during the election period” and “broadcasters must take into account evidence of past electoral support and/or current support”. Crucially, candidates with “significant views and perspectives” should receive appropriate coverage.

Jo Swinson refuses to apologise for misleading Lib Dem poll

In 2019, for the first time in 100 years, the Lib Dems beat Labour and the Tories in a national election – the May European elections. We got 20 per cent of the vote, whereas their combined vote share was 23.2 per cent. Before that, in the English local elections, the Lib Dems gained 706 councillors and control of 10 councils, while the Tories and Labour lost 1,414 councillors between them and control of 50 councils.

Most recently we overturned a 8,000 majority in the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election, taking a seat that voted to leave the EU from the Tories. Our polling average has been around the same level of our electoral performance since. The last time we enjoyed similar levels of support in the lead in to the 2010 general election, our then leader Nick Clegg was included in a three-way debate with the Tory and Labour counterparts. So the electoral and current support is there – the crucial difference now is that our leader is a woman.

If anything, Jo has a greater claim than Nick to being included in the debates between the main party leaders this time round. Brexit was not on the radar in 2010 and it dominates everything now – it is the key issue. Brexit is the reason we are even having an early election. A sizeable proportion of the public want to abandon Brexit altogether – consistently around a third of voters indicate that is their preference – yet neither the Conservatives nor Labour are committed to stopping Brexit. The Lib Dems are the biggest and strongest Remain party – clearly holding a “significant view” under the OfCom code.

So what on earth are ITV playing at? The real villains of the piece are Johnson and Corbyn. They both claim to be committed to democracy and equality. In 2016 Corbyn declared “we will never be a successful society ... until there is equality for women”; in 2017 Johnson declared “I'm proud of the UK's commitment to gender equality.”

These claims may have sounded good at the time but have been thrown in the bin when it comes to their own party-political interests in 2019 because both have agreed to proceed on the basis that a sizeable part of the UK is out of the room when they are slugging it out. ITV should not be aiding and abetting our broken politics. That is why, like Sky News, they should include Jo Swinson in their debate. – we will not rest until they do so and will do all we can to ensure those who want to stop Brexit are heard.

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