There is only one politician who has been on Question Time more than Nigel Farage and that’s Business Secretary Vince Cable, according to data compiled from 4 December 2008 to 22 November this year (excluding Question Time’s annual visits to Northern Ireland).
Question Time is the most-watched political programme in Britain, its political make-up is vitally important. An appearance on the panel establishes you as a commentator or as a politician/political party of serious standing. You become part of the BBC’s construction of ‘official Britain’, of the country’s image it contrives to reflect. In short, the individual and political party represented on Question Time gains credibility in a way it would be difficult to achieve otherwise.
Farage’s frequent appearances cannot be explained by electoral success. UKIP is not a party with mass support, or indeed much support at all. Votes cast and seats won are, ultimately, the only sensible test for political parties.
UKIP’s lack of tangible electoral success is quite striking. They may have polled relatively well in the three recent by-elections, but they didn’t win. A political party which cannot win is, I would suggest, of little use to anyone. UKIP do not, of course, have any seats in the House of Commons.
UKIP is neither more nor less than a fringe party in British politics. The number of votes cast in the 2010 general election shows just how far away UKIP is from any kind of breakthrough in returning MPs to the House of Commons. The three main parties polled as follows: Conservative – 10,703,654 votes Labour – 8,606,517 votes Lib-Dems – 6,836,248 votes UKIP, on the other hand, gained a derisory 919,471 votes, 9,784,183 behind the Tories and 7,687,046 fewer than Labour.
UKIP do, of course, have seats in the European Parliament. At the last Euro elections in 2009 seats gained were: Conservative – 26 (includes one from Northern Ireland and excludes later defections) UKIP – 13 (this again takes no account of subsequent defections) Labour – 13 Lib-Dems – 11 (It is worth pointing out that the European Parliament elections are conducted under a system of proportional representation which improves the showing of smaller parties).
When we look at local election results, the minuscule nature of UKIP’s appeal becomes even more apparent – 139 councillors, mostly in parishes, and just 21 at district level.
During the period December 2008 to November 2012 there were 704 panel slots on Question Time, filled by Party as follows:
Vince Cable (12)
Chris Huhne (7)
Shirley Williams (7)
Paddy Ashdown (6) Menzies Campbell (6) Charles Kennedy (6) Simon Hughes (6) Jo Swinson (6) Sarah Teather (6)
Nigel Farage (11)
Caroline Lucas (8)
Nicola Sturgeon (7)
Elfyn Llwyd (5)
George Galloway (4) Alex Salmond (4) Leanne Wood (4)
Ken Clarke (10)
Theresa May (8)
Sayeeda Warsi (7)
Iain Duncan Smith (6)
Liam Fox (6)
Caroline Flint (10)
Peter Hain (8)
Diane Abbott (7)
Andy Burnham (7)
Alan Johnson (7)
In total, there have been 47 Conservative politicians occupying 137 slots, 51 Labour with 148 slots, 31 LibDems with 109 slots and 18 other taking 57 slots.
There were, in addition, seven trade unionists occupying nine slots, 23 business people with 32 slots, 31 celebrities who had 46 slots, four “campaigners” and “wonks” taking 11 slots. The category “other” – 23 authors, scientists, clergy, retired military, etc. – took 29 slots. However, by far the largest category was journalists (61 occupying 127 slots).
In terms of politicians appearing on Question Time, I would urge the BBC to review their criteria. A very small party such as UKIP should not be invited on to the same extent as Government Ministers. It’s all about balance, something the BBC should take seriously.