Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Here's a way to convince angry, alienated and apathetic voters and non-voters

People & PM 1-2-1 – A way to make a 2-way connection between people and politicians. Part 1

Here’s a way to convince angry, alienated and apathetic voters and non-voters that the political system is actually interested in the issues they care about

Plenty of people, including Russell Brand and Nigel Farage, have identified a fundamental problem at the heart of British democracy. People feel that politicians are not interested in their views and their concerns. They see the political agenda and the national political conversation as being dominated by a small elite – let’s call them the “Insiders”.

Most Insiders have all or almost all of the following characteristics.

  • ·         They are middle-class

  • ·         They are well-educated (often private-school and even more often Oxbridge)

  • ·         They are well-off (often in top 1% of earners and owning substantial assets too)

  • ·         They live and/or work in London

  • ·         They are middle-aged (unless they have previously been an important Insider)

  • ·         They are white

  • ·         They are non-disabled

  • ·         They are male

The Insiders are a cosy group. Many have known each other for years, attend the same parties and are god-parents to each other’s children.

David Cameron’s inner circle is drawn from an even more restricted section of society than most Insiders - a high proportion attended one particular school, Eton.

The Labour front bench are mostly typical Insiders. Decades of professionalisation mean there are now few powerful working class figures as there were in Attlee’s post-war government, like Nye Bevan, a miner, or Ernest Bevan, who left school at 11 to work as a farm boy.

A powerful symbol of the attitude of Insiders at Westminster to the rest of us – let’s call us the “Outsiders” – is PMQs. In theory, this is the opportunity for the Outsider’s representatives to put their concerns to the man at the apex of democratic power. In practice, it is a farce. The Speaker recently wrote to party leaders, urging them to clamp down on "yobbery and public school twittishness" at PMQs.

Most Insiders retain their Insider status whatever the result of an election.  They include proprietors, editors, leading journalists and commentators in print and on radio and TV. In addition, there are the very wealthy and those who lead large companies. And there are the “Great and the Good”, prominent among whose number are members of the Royal Family.

One particular media outlet holds a special place in Britain’s unwritten constitution. This is Radio 4’s Today Programme. Here, Outsiders can listen to Insiders discussing the issues that seem important to Insiders.  

Outsiders can understandably become frustrated. Many are angry and many of those have voted for UKIP.

Far more frustrated Outsiders do not vote at all. Some non-voters, like Russell Brand, care passionately about political issues but feel alienated from a system that seems irrelevant to those issues. 

Other non-voters are apathetic. These people – disproportionately young and poor - have the same concerns as anyone else about political issues such as housing, education, health, tax, benefits and the rest. However, they do not see any connection between their concerns and a remote political system, which does not seem interested in the reality of their lives.

Politicians urgently need to do more than mouth platitudes about “listening to the people”. 

Here is a practical, cheap and popular proposal which would give the overwhelming majority, the Outsiders, a real opportunity to set the political agenda and take part in the national political conversation.

I propose a TV programme, which I call People & PM 1-2-1. It could become as much a part of Britain’s unwritten constitution as PMQs and the PM’s weekly audience with the Queen.

These are the essential components of People & PM 1-2-1.

  • ·         In each episode, there would be a series of one-to-one conversations, five minutes each, between the PM and ten different participants

  • ·         The PM and each participant would sit “as equals”

  • ·         It would be on live at prime time and with no studio audience

  • ·         It would be monthly

  • ·         It would take place in locations around the UK. The UK would be divided into 12 areas, so that the whole country would be covered in one year

  • ·        Participants would not apply but would be selected. Each episode would have a representative sample of the potential electorate from the area where the programme is located (both voters and non-voters, including the more than 6 million not on the Electoral Register) 

  • ·         Selection would be done by an appropriate organisation which must be properly funded to reach people who are harder to reach e.g. not on the electoral register

  • ·        Participants would be informed that they had been selected to appear. If they do not want to, someone else with similar characteristics would be chosen

People and PM 1-2-1 – a mix of power, politics and reality TV - would make compelling viewing. The viewer and the PM will not know what to expect from each of the ten participants. Some may be confrontational and interrogate the PM. They may well prove effective; the PM could not insult the questioner as happens in PMQs and would find it more difficult to avoid the question. 

Others participants might “just” have a conversation with the PM. 

People and PM 1-2-1 would allow voters and non-voters to see people they could identify with setting the political agenda and in conversation with the PM. It would make for less anger, alienation and apathy and more engagement with our democratic system. The need to do something about the problem at the heart of our democracy is great and urgent.