Tom Brookes FRSA guest blogs about a recent RSA Fellowship event during Parliament Week. Find out what happened, and what he thought:
Do we get the politics we deserve? Is politics all that bad? Are we only interested in scandal? Is the voice of the public heard?
As part of Parliament Week, the RSA and a panel of prominent politicians and academics considered these questions. Lecturer in Politics at the University of Sheffield, Matthew Flinders, Labour MP Gloria De Piero and Nadhim Zahawi – Conservative MP formerly of YouGov attempted to answer whether or not we get the politics we deserve. They all then set a question to be discussed afterwards by the audience.
Matthew Flinders argued that actually, we get a better kind of politics than we think we do. His premise, and that of his book, is that politics isn’t that bad really. Matthew argued that the public doesn’t hate politics and politicians, submitting it’s more accurate to say that there is a lack of understanding of what politics is and what politicians can do. Problems in politics can trace some of their roots to public expectations – some sections’ expectations of politicians are too high, missing out what the public must do to affect lasting changes. Matthew argued that there exists an ‘expectations gap’ between what the public expect and what politics can deliver. The healthy scepticism of politicians in the UK has slipped into corrosive cynicism. The constant negativity of political satire, for instance, actually matters – and particularly amongst the young – who get a lot of political information from such shows. Do comedians and satirists have a responsibility to society at large – to represent a balanced view?
The healthy scepticism of politicians in the UK has slipped into corrosive cynicism. The constant negativity of political satire, for instance, actually matters – and particularly amongst the young – who get a lot of political information from such shows.
Follow-up question: Has Democratic politics in the age of the internet and ‘digital democracy’ simply become too easy? Or can we use the digital world to genuinely benefit our democracy?
Gloria De Piero MP (Labour) - Formerly GMTV’s political correspondent, Gloria became an MP after noticing the high bar on GMTV for a political story to get through; namely, it has to be particularly scandalous. For instance when expenses broke, suddenly everyone was deeply interested in registering their disgust. Gloria suggested that part of our problem with politics is that if we only tune in when something untoward happens a lasting negative impression is unsurprising. Gloria’s first project as an MP is a survey asking: ‘why do people hate me?’ (me = politicians). Gloria wants to hear, in people’s own words, why they hate politics and went chatting to people all over the country to find out. The first question Gloria asks all the groups is: “what’s the first thing you think when I say politicians?” – and usually receives generally and specifically negative comments. However later into questioning a consensus emerges that there are two types of politicians – and that it is reaching high office which makes representatives loose touch. Those Gloria surveyed generally disliked the adversarial nature of Parliament and Prime Minister’s Questions – one called it “Jeremy Kyle for posh people”.
Those Gloria surveyed generally disliked the adversarial nature of Parliament and Prime Minister’s Questions – one called it “Jeremy Kyle for posh people”.
There was also an assumption that a degree from Oxford is required to get involved in politics. Asking what it was thought that ‘getting involved in politics’ meant, Gloria suggests that it means fighting for the needs of your locality and resolving its problems – a job requiring no qualifications whatsoever. Framed in these terms, many were interested in getting involved. Further instructive comments from survey participants included: “representing your community isn’t advertised at the job centre” – people don’t know how to get involved; but were interested in doing so. Gloria submits we need more ‘normal people in politics’ – that Parliament should ‘look and sound like the country’. Objection from Matt Flinders on this point asking for a definition of a normal person – which is of course impossible, as normality is a relative concept.
Follow-up question: How do we open up our politics so we get a broader range of people to stand for election?
Nadhim Zahawi MP (Conservative) - A former executive at YouGov, Nadhim’s emphasises public engagement and the importance of feedback to the operation of politics and how politicians ‘tune in’ with that. Is the feedback politicians obtain meaningful and representative of the population at large? Nadhim submits that the UK is notoriously poor at citizen feedback, being one of the worst nations for taking citizen’s views into account. Nadhim’s key reason for this is the way we (politicians) approach people. Use of consultations and focus groups is unwieldy, placing too much emphasis on specialists and lobbyists without precipitating a 2 way conversation between government and ‘ordinary users’ of services. ‘Nobody’s an insider’, Nadhim argued - presumably referring to the universal use of government services ( though Gloria looked as if she disagreed). The research of interest groups is vital, but requires balancing with views of public at large. In Whitehall, Nadhim further suggests the Civil Service is wary of engagement due to a fear that engagement with the public leads to those who shout loudest getting most attention. There are more egalitarian methods of engagement, the e-petition system being a prime example, though it is often ignored. Nadhim thought petitions are a good start, but is concerned with how to improve further and ‘get ordinary people involved’ - Nadhim said a system is needed to make this happen; surmising that it was impossible, in the past, to get feedback from ‘millions’ - but this is possible now, and we should use this ability to improve politics.
Nadhim submits that the UK is notoriously poor at citizen feedback, being one of the worst nations for taking citizen’s views into account.
Follow-up question: How could a form of direct democracy deliver better government?
I chaired a session based on Nadhim's question, How could a form of direct democracy deliver better government? We started by discussing the concept of direct democracy to the group, and how the question is somewhat loaded - direct democracy is a form of government, so strictly speaking it’s a slightly oxymoronic question as accepting the case for direct democracy means accepting that form of governance. This generated a heated discussion of whether the UK was a democracy at all, which is always an interesting debate but was off question so I explained that what I reasoned the question was intended to mean: how could elements of direct democracy, like consensus decision making and public consultation, improve the representative democracy we have and what are the issues associated with this? The discussion group split into two and again into two subgroups, making separate conversations hard to follow but the three key ideas/concerns with applying elements of direct democracy which emerged were:
- The power of an expert to subvert group opinion - i.e. Lobbyists, self interest - concern that the loudest voice wins. The group recognised that this occurs in current political debates too - however were concerned that this would be amplified in a large group seeking consensus
- The ability to publicly ‘veto’ or ‘recall’ dissatisfactory legislation to parliament for reconsideration on grounds ‘x’ was popular and seen as beneficial / inclusive. Rather like recalling an MP for poor performance or misbehaviour, recalling a law for reconsideration if its implementation doesn’t marry up to its principles was seen as very pro-democratic
- Similarly to point one was a concern over agenda setting - if politics was mass-participatory, who sets the agendas and decides what to prioritise?
Another idea being discussed was how to ensure that debates were meaningful as well as inclusive - focussed conversations centred upon issues; not large talking shops. This seems to answer the concern of point three - agendas set based upon issues and needs makes priorities moral issues as well as practicalities.
If there had been more time, I would have liked to respond to some of the objections to ideas of direct democracy and advance the conversation but it remained deeply satisfying to see that a brief chat about the concept of direct democracy opened up a healthy debate on the very nature of UK democracy and pitfalls of the direct system, pitfalls which could be said to equally apply to the representative system. Direct democracy is a theme that should definitely be explored further - I’d even suggest a lecture title: “The UK’s Problem With Democracy”.
And I throw that question out to other Fellows and readers of the blog – do we get the politics we deserve? What do you think?
Tom Brookes FRSA