Many would agree that all is not well with democracy in the UK. One way to improve our system would be to let a far wider range of people set the national political agenda and hold leading politicians to account. I propose doing this by means of a new programme – on TV or YouTube - which would mix real politics with reality TV.
Just as for centuries, ordinary people were denied the right to vote, now they are excluded from the crucial democratic business of setting the agenda and holding to account. These roles are restricted overwhelmingly to a privileged few in our politico-media elite who almost always share all or most of the following characteristics - well-educated, well-off, middle-aged, white, London-based. Their agenda inevitably reflects their own background and experience.
On the proposed new programme, people would be given proper airtime. They can have their say without having to shout out a question to the PM visiting a hospital at election time or being packaged in a vox pop or trying to engage from the distance of the audience to the panel on BBC’s Question Time.
Party leaders would meet a genuinely representative sample of the public, “the questioners”, in a monthly live show. The leader would be in one-to-one conversation with each of the questioners, one after another.
If a questioner is shy, inarticulate or angry it will be for the leader to deal with the conversation as best they can. They will demonstrate their own qualities such as empathy.
The programme might include all sorts of people from the whole range of our diverse population, who are not currently heard in the national political debate, such as: an 85 year old pensioner, an 18 year old single mother, a deep-sea fisherman, a paraplegic ex-soldier, a corner-shop owner or someone working hard on poverty wages and relying on a food-bank.
The proposal is rooted in the belief that everyone matters in a democracy and everyone has political concerns. It would dramatically widen the range of voices that are heard in the national political debate, increase political engagement and help people escape their own information bubbles and better understand their fellow citizens.
In the same way that it is not necessary to be on Twitter to be aware of President Trump’s tweets, the programme would affect the political agenda beyond those who watch it.
Here are details of the proposal.
- UK would be divided into 12 areas and the programme would come from a different area each month.
- An independent body would select (like a jury) ten questioners per show from the area where the programme is based that month.
- The questioners should collectively form a representative sample from that area. The factors used to select a representative sample may, for example, include sex, income, race, age, religion and disability. The selection process must be rigorous and transparent.
- If someone selected does not want to take part, then someone else similar would be selected.
- Each questioner would have five minutes one-to-one with the leader.
- There would be no chairperson and no studio audience. There would be the necessary security.
- The programme would go out live (with usual short delay) and there would be an edited version of highlights.
- An independent body would deal with any complaints or other issues.
Ideally, the prime minister, Theresa May, would agree to take part in the programme. Unfortunately, it is unlikely she would. She has shown an aversion to unscripted meetings with the public and the current arrangement suits her.
Jeremy Corbyn, however, should, I hope, agree to take part. The programme would be good for democracy and, I believe, good for him too.
There would be an obvious risk for any political leader in taking part. A questioner might launch a furious attack on them and they would be trapped for five minutes and it would all go out live.
But the likely benefits for any politician should outweigh the risk. They could connect with voters across the UK, speaking to them directly and not mediated by an unsympathetic or hostile media. And as for the risk of a furious attack - even if the person attacking them is unlikely to be convinced, they can defend themselves and may persuade some of the watching public.
We should not fear the people, as those who denied them the vote once did, but should trust them to speak on their own behalf. Let them ask the questions that matter to them and put their own issues on the agenda.
One day, a programme like this may be seen as an essential part of any proper democracy.