Sunday, 11 January 2015

A radical and practical proposal to help tackle the serious disconnect between the public and the political system

A TV programme where PM meets public 1-2-1 would help tackle the serious disconnect between the public and the political system

Many people feel that the political system does not listen to them or engage with the issues they care about. Some of those who feel ignored vote for new parties not identified with Westminster like UKIP. Many more simply do not vote at all. In 2010, taking into account over 6 million people who were not even on the Electoral Register, only 57.5% of those eligible to vote did so and among 18-24 year olds it was only a shocking 24.6%.

I propose a small-scale and practical reform which could make a significant contribution to improving public engagement with the political system. It is a monthly TV programme, which I call People & PM 1-2-1. The details are set out below.

First, however, I explain the rationale behind the idea. A properly functioning democracy needs more than simply allowing people to vote. One of the other necessary features is that the agenda for the national political conversation should cover issues that concern the whole population and not just a minority.

Currently in the UK, this agenda is set, almost invariably, by a small group made up of national editors, journalists and commentators who will themselves have been influenced or pressured by politicians and lobbyists and others. These people decide what to put on the front pages of the national newspapers or what to run at ten past 8 on the Today programme or what should lead the 10 o’clock TV News and so on. (The influence of social media, while growing, is still far less significant in setting the agenda for the national political conversation.)

The agenda set by this small group very often fails to reflect the concerns of much of the population. For example, according to Oxfam, one in five of the UK population, that is over 13 million people, live below the official poverty line. The issues that these people face are rarely on the national political agenda. In contrast, whereas only some 300,000 people pay the top rate of income tax, issues of concern to this group are often on the front pages or lead the bulletins.

This matters for our democracy. When millions of people see no connection between the issues they care about and the national political conversation, they are disconnected from the political system itself. This in turn leads politicians to engage less with ordinary people’s concerns and so on, in a vicious cycle.

What is needed is a mechanism which can widen – as far as possible - the range of people who can put the issues they care about (and which others like them may well care about) onto the national political agenda. This is what People & PM 1-2-1 is designed to achieve.

On People & PM 1-2-1, the PM of the day would face members of the public in a series of five minute one-to-one encounters on live TV. The combination of the presence of the most powerful politician in the land with the element of unpredictability and of Reality TV is likely to make for high viewing figures.

The programme would hopefully become “appointment TV” like Strictly, X Factor etc and be discussed on social media, on front pages and in conversations all over the country.

There would be something thrillingly democratic in seeing the PM in conversation on an equal footing with people from all parts of the UK, from all communities and of all ages above voting age. The PM would have proper conversations with people such as the unemployed, former members of the armed forces, single mothers, entrepreneurs, people with serious disabilities, farm workers, new citizens, small business owners, students, pensioners, nurses, fishermen, City workers, teachers, people earning the minimum wage, environmentalists, carers, indeed the whole range of people in our country.

It would be a stark contrast with the current position where it is rare for the PM to be questioned on live TV by anyone other than a middle aged white male who has an Oxbridge degree and is based in London.

Furthermore, some of the small band of professional interviewers are too cosy with those they are supposed to hold to account. Andrew Marr, for example, apparently saw no conflict of interest in holding his book launch in 2014 at No 10 Downing Street, hosted by the prime minister. Most of those who are supposed to hold power to account went to same schools and universities and go to same parties and have the same world view, blind spots and concerns as those in power.

The rest of the population needs the chance to raise its issues. Imagine the contrast between the PM discussing, say, a benefits freeze with a regular interviewer as opposed to with someone who is actually living on benefits. The latter would be democratic. It would also be revealing. It would certainly be watchable.

These are the detailed proposals for People & PM 1-2-1: -
               Each participant would have five minutes for a one-to-one conversation with the PM. When a participant finishes they leave their chair and the next one takes their place
               It would be live (with a short time delay to guard against illegal or offensive language)
               It would be on at prime time
               It would be monthly in a different area each month so that after one year all the UK had been covered
               No one should try and control the agenda. It will be up to the participants
               There would be no one chairing and no studio audience. There will only be an occasional voiceover e.g. as participants change
               There would be ten participants per episode – one at a time in conversation with the PM
               The PM and each participant would sit as equals as with a conventional interview
               Participants would not apply to take part. They would be selected
               The job of selection would be given to an expert organisation such as a polling company. They would be funded so as to cover the hard to reach e.g. the millions who are not registered to vote
               The detailed selection criteria would be published. The aim would be to select a representative sample of all people of voting age living in the area covered by that month’s programme
               If someone selected did not want to take part, then someone else in the area who fits the same criteria would be selected.  However, “shy” people who are selected should be given encouragement and support to take part. This would be without any pressure at all on what issue(s) they should raise with the PM
               People & PM 1-2-1’s governance would be the responsibility of a body which would also be made up of a representative sample of the public. It would work to ensure that the programme operates consistently according to its principles

The principal aim of People & PM 1-2-1 is to reduce the serious disconnect between the public and the political system by widening the group of people who set the agenda for the national political conversation. However, there would be other benefits too. The novel sight of seeing ordinary people in conversation with the PM would itself make people more likely to engage with the political system. Furthermore, the programme should lead to the political class itself becoming better informed.  And sometimes the format may even produce genuine revelations – a PM may find it more difficult to evade a question from a persistent member of the public than from a professional interviewer.

To help tackle the disconnect and to help build trust, the people need to see the PM hearing the issues of people like them.

People & PM 1-2-1 would be a shot of adrenalin in the arm of our sickly democratic system.

Below I answer some common questions about People & PM 1-2-1.

Frequently Asked Questions about People & PM 1-2-1.

Will participants be sufficiently capable and articulate?

Not so long ago this question was asked in relation to voting. For centuries, elites used to oppose democracy out of “fear of the mob”. It was not until 1918 that all men could vote in the UK and it was 1928 before all women could vote.

Ordinary people are trusted to decide on the gravest issues when serving on a jury. They ought to be trusted to talk to the PM for five minutes on live TV.

It is not necessary to be very articulate to effectively express what is on your mind. And the concerns of the inarticulate are as valid as everyone else’s.

Will a PM not run rings around participants?

No doubt a PM could run rings around many participants. However, a PM will be very aware that they are with a member of the public on live TV and will be judged not only on the issues but also on their character. A PM will not want to be perceived as bullying or patronising.

Should there not be someone chairing?

Having someone chair the programme detracts from the essential quality of one to one conversation. It will be for the PM and the member of the public in that particular conversation to deal with problems that might arise, such as two people speaking at the same time. Just like in normal conversations.

What if a participant is aggressive and rude?

There would be a short time delay in case a participant uses illegal or offensive language. Illegal language would include such things as incitement to violence. Broadcasters would follow their usual guidelines on swearing.

If a participant was otherwise aggressive and rude to the PM, the PM would have to respond as best they could.

Why would a TV company agree to screen People & PM 1-2-1?

The BBC might agree to broadcast the programme as part of their public service remit. In fact, as it may well achieve high ratings, a number of broadcasters may be interested.

Why would a PM agree to take part?

Once People & PM 1-2-1 becomes established as a monthly event then subsequent PMs would find it very difficult not to continue. It would be part of the unwritten constitution like weekly PMQs in parliament.

The first PM to agree to take part might do so for a number of reasons. They might recognise that the programme would help address the serious disconnect between the public and the political system.  They might have pledged to do so in a manifesto. They might decide that the risk for them in taking part is outweighed by the possible benefit of being able to appear direct to the public unmediated by the press.

Would this be a good use of a PM’s time?

In a democracy, meeting a genuinely representative sample of the population once a month may be considered one of the most useful ways of all for a PM to use their time. The PM meets the Queen once a week.

I would be very happy to answer any other questions. I am on email and on twitter @TomLondon6


  1. I've not had time to digest the detail; but it sounds a great idea. To my mind one of teh truly wrrying things of any large organisation - from medium sized representative groups (company boards, group committees) to cabinets, is the bunker effect: they get out of touch. This keeps them in touch, and in live (not IT) touch. It must be developed: go for it Tom; and keep us in touch

  2. Saved this link when you sen through on Twitter a while back. Read it and want it.

  3. I think this is an excellent idea. I have already started sharing and will include a link to this on my next blog post.