Political Grandstanding and Hubris

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In previous posts (here and here) I have discussed the pernicious effect that today’s 24-hour soundbite media has on the quality of our political debate and its contribution to electoral apathy. I don’t want to bang on about this but I was so outraged at the TV coverage of yesterday’s meeting of the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee that I feel compelled to get a few things off my chest so that I can enjoy the rest of my day and eat lots of hay without enduring a bad dose of ruminant indigestion.

For those of you fortunate to miss it, this all-party Parliamentary committee, chaired by the Labour MP Margaret Hodge, was taking evidence from HSBC executives on the company’s role in facilitating tax evasion schemes. Now, this is precisely the sort of core business that this committee should be conducting and it is quite right that Parliament investigates any abuse of the tax system. My objections are not to do with the subject matter but the conduct of the MPs during the hearing.

The verbal abuse of Stuart Gulliver and Chris Meares was bad enough but the treatment of Rona Fairhead was an abuse of parliamentary privilege. Unfounded accusations, inappropriate tone, confusing informed comment with personal views, refusing to allow witnesses to answer by talking over them, deliberate rudeness, contrived moral outrage and anger. The list goes on, and it only happened because the proceedings were filmed and presented an opportunity for our parliamentary saviours to grandstand safe in the knowledge that they would get a few moments of glory in the evening news.

The problem with this approach is that the purpose of the proceedings was undermined by the behaviour of the all-party committee members. The idea is to take evidence and report back to parliament, and by behaving in this way the committee members actually reduced the chances that witnesses would provide meaningful evidence and that anything consequential would eventually be reported. Moreover, whilst the MPs may have thought they were courting public opinion with their contrived anger, actually all they were doing was bringing politics further into disrepute and adding to the widespread public impression that they are solely interested in themselves rather than the public good.

It really is time to remove the cameras and have a clear out. I periodically have to do that with my sheep. Distasteful, but occasionally necessary for the benefit of the rest of the flock.

Toxic Policies: Mentioning the Unmentionable

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In a previous post called Avoiding the Debate, I mentioned some of the factors that I believe are stifling our political debate and reducing its quality resulting in worrying electoral apathy and a democratic deficit. Today, I thought I would mention another feature that undermines proper discussion, and that is the toxic policy.

The toxic policy is an issue that has become so politically suicidal ever to mention that no MP will even dare to raise the matter for discussion. It is a political no-go zone. A good example is our centralized funding model for the NHS. Now I don’t know if our current model is the best solution or not. But I do know that the NHS costs an extraordinary sum of money and that demand for health services is increasing at an alarming rate. With this in mind, it seems to me that periodically we should at least look at other ways of funding health care even if we subsequently decide that the current model remains appropriate for today’s circumstances. At the very least we should have the courage occasionally to take a look and discuss it.

Making subjects politically impossible to raise is a deliberate tactic employed by those who oppose change and seek to stifle debate. Frequently, those employing the tactic will try to adopt the moral high ground by implying that someone is extreme or despicable if they dare even to open a matter for discussion. At a local level, a good example is the use of the term Nimby to describe someone opposed to a development. The moral implication is that an individual or party is somehow acting selfishly and against the common good for opposing a development even if they are the person most affected by the proposal. The Greens are particularly adept at employing the tactic when wind farm developments are proposed but it is also used to stifle debate on other policy matters. In these instances, contrived moral outrage is often reinforced by accusations that the very fact that a subject has been opened for discussion reveals that a decision for change has already been made.

The problem with such political correctness is that questions that need to be asked remain buried, change becomes impossible to achieve and political orthodoxy becomes dogma. Now you might think that a politician that is unwilling to tackle the toxic policy lacks bravery and that would be true to some extent, but in the face of the likely adverse media coverage it becomes much easier to bury a subject rather than to raise it.

This is ultimately bad for all us in my view. How will we ever get better if we don’t look at all the options?

Political Leaders’ TV Circus

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Oh Dear, the TV companies have agreed the dates for our lords and masters to strut their stuff live on the telly. There will be two TV debates where 7 of the party leaders will engage in a political soundbite melee, and a final event where just David Cameron and Ed Miliband will go head to head. They will be screened on 2, 16 and 30 April so my advice would be to attend your pub quiz night on those dates as you are likely come away better educated and, I suspect, a good deal more cheerful.

In my post, Avoiding The Debate I discussed the reasons for the poor quality of the political debate in the UK and the adverse effect it was having on the electorate. Forgive me for sounding cynical but is this really going to help the situation? The media will talk up the programmes and tell us they are bringing politics to the people when in fact all they really want are the viewing figures and the hope that someone trips up so that the story can be kept going for a few days. Forget any idea of a considered discussion on the strategy-led policies of the various parties. Instead it will be a fest of soundbites, faked outrage and manufactured drama. It will be Eastenders meeting Westminster in a Christmas panto special. The audience will boo and hiss, the protagonists will roll their eyes at each other and those at home will think solely about who got the better of who in the war of pre-rehearsed wit and soundbite.

And how could it be otherwise especially in the two debates where there will be seven parties (Con, Lab, Lib/Dem, UKIP, Green, SNP, Plaid Cymru). There will be no time for any detailed argument just the same old inane point scoring that has turned so many people off politics and politicians.

The only hope is that the whole thing falls apart and gets cancelled although the TV companies have said that if anyone pulls out, the programmes will continue with an empty seat on the stage.

Enjoy your quiz.

Avoiding The Debate

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There is nothing more frustrating and boring than watching a politician avoid answering a question, and it is little wonder that public respect for MPs and the political process has sunk so low. But how is it that we have arrived at this point and are MPs solely to blame? The mother of parliaments was once regarded very highly, and its members were largely seen as public-spirited and principled. Now the electorate yawns at the day to day political tussle, and MPs are mocked and set alongside merchant bankers in the court of public opinion.

To my mind, the primary reason for this state of affairs is the manner in which the political debate is hosted and targeted. Modern communications are instantaneous, and fickle media outlets provide such fleeting opportunities that politicians often only have time to spill out some short and catchy, yet inane, sound-bite that they hope may later command a headline in the following day’s paper. There is very little opportunity for considered argument about the pros and cons of a policy: only its one-sided and instantaneous promotion.

This problem is made worse by the misreporting of any kind of admission by a politician that a counter-argument may have some merit even if he believes that those disadvantages are outweighed by the advantages of his own position. What tends to happen is that if a politician acknowledges both sides of an argument then it is often the fact that he has acknowledged the disadvantages of his proposal that is reported as the main thrust of the story. As a result, his reasoned debate that might well have interested the audience is left unexposed.

But why are political discussions reported in this way? It is quite clear that many media outlets have their own political allegiances and will spin a story to suit their own political allegiances. So, for example, from the same interview content, The Telegraph would report that a Minister favours tax cuts to stimulate the economy whereas The Guardian would report that the Minister wants to cut services to make tax cuts for the rich. The party whip system also makes this situation worse. So utterly tribal has party politics become that absolute adherence to the party line is demanded and anyone caught going off message is immediately dragged into the Whip’s office for a metaphorical (or real, who knows?) spanking. The problem with this approach is that it not only discourages MPs from discussing matters rationally, but it encourages the media to make the thrust of their story the very fact that a minister or MP has raised their head above the parapet to occasion proper 2-sided debate.

Finally, I suspect that there is another altogether more cynical component to this issue. With the erosion of 2 party politics has come the rise of the special interest groups and ever more research into the polls. Rather than steering public opinion through good leadership and strategic vision, parties now seek to be all things to all people in the hope that they can court the maximum vote. This is a strong driver for avoiding reasoned debate because any clearly stated position risks alienating a potential voter somewhere. How intellectually dishonest is that? It is obfuscation, and it is driven purely by the thirst for political power rather than a desire to make the world a better place.

I don’t know where the answer to this problem lies. In the first instance, I really wish that media outlets would act more responsibly by encouraging fair reporting and creating the conditions to allow politicians to make their arguments properly. Second, the local party associations, whips and party apparatchiks need to recognize that opinion cannot be uniform and that it is not necessarily damaging for both sides of an argument to be exposed. Indeed it is healthy for the country. Finally, it is possible that we will have to re-examine our electoral system. Whilst I was always a supporter of the first-past-the-post system, perhaps the other factors I have mentioned mean that it has finally had its day. Whatever the answer, we cannot go on with matters as they are. Democracy relies on proper debate and voter engagement, and we don’t appear to have either at the moment. Anyone got some good ideas?