Friday, 1 September 2017

Let the many and not the few set the agenda and hold politicians to account

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.
  1. UK would be divided into 12 areas and the programme would come from a different area each month.
  2. An independent body would select (like a jury) ten questioners per show from the area where the programme is based that month.
  3. 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.
  4. If someone selected does not want to take part, then someone else similar would be selected.
  5. Each questioner would have five minutes one-to-one with the leader. 
  6. There would be no chairperson and no studio audience. There would be the necessary security.
  7. The programme would go out live (with usual short delay) and there would be an edited version of highlights.
  8. 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.


  1. Sounds intriguing - Who would produce or formulate such an endeavor? Any MSM outlet would want their own set of rules or practices in place- so that seems a no go.
    YouTube would be ideal, yet reaching the general public, which I assume you desire, might be problematic.
    It surely would be an improvement over the Question Time farce and the talking heads that are just iterations of set word salads.

  2. I am not quite sure why you think Question Time is such a bad format. IMO it is better than Jerry Springer, all emotion, no content. Even Springer show was controlled. IMO your proposal:

    a. Is an opportunity for extremists to rant rather than ask pointed questions to hold MPs to account;
    b. Is about emotional confrontation, car-crash TV watched to see MPs being attacked rather than held to account.

    Holding MPs to account needs to be fact-based rather than all raw emotion. Citizens anger should be seen - enough injustices / lack of democracy to make people angry - but anger needs to be response to MPs' answers not angry rants.

    MPs avoid TV when cannot get points across rationally, or if risk of bullying or physical intimidation: happy to be on Question Time but not Springer.

    Question Time or Any Questions as starting point:

    1. Skype based: easy to arrange, easy to control, cheaper to produce

    2. Questioners should be vetted: rational, genuinely wanting answers, not furthering own agenda or making own party MP look good. Anger OK so long as it does't prevent rational questions, but not if it turns into a rant. Politically knowledgeable / genuine grievance. Not necessarily highly educated, but must argue on rational / factual grounds not dogma. Questioners more likely to hold opposing ideas and thus be biased away from elite.

    People with grievances easily angered, anger easy to become rant. MPs don't want to risk a rant without them having a chance to rebut it, so must be recorded with ranting questioners edited out.

    3. Not just party leaders, but Secs of State (Jeremy "Thick" Hunt), constituency MPs. So two distinct "shows":

    A. Governmental: monthly leaders (questions on major policies), weekly topical SoS slot, 1 government senior minister and 1 opposition equivalent (various opposition parties to agree who attends - but moderated so proportional to seats), strict time-limit to answer, strict answer-the-question policy (i.e. off the point then cut off, first time brought back to the point by the chairman, second time losing all remaining answering time)

    Questioners asked to submit questions shortly before recording to agree amongst themselves who will ask what, questions might leak to MPs so MPs also given questions shortly before recording in order to prepare. Like HoC, supplemental question not shared in advance.

    Timing: 30s to introduce questioner, 1m for the main question, 2m for government answer, 2m for opposition rebuttal, 2m for questioner to think (edited out), 1m for supplemental question, 1m for government answer, 1m for opposition rebuttal, 2m for questioner to prepare response (edited out), 1m for questioner to say why they are (un)happy with answers, 30s for chairman's interjections = 10 mins per question.

    B. Constituency: 3 shows per day so every MP can be held to account on constituency issues once per year. MPs given three potential dates, must give justification for dates they refuse. If no dates acceptable, excuses are broadcast, slot is offered to opposing MP to answer on their behalf. Much more personal, MPs grilled / held to account as Constituency MPs on constituency issues without ability to hide behind government policy or ministerial code. Jeremy Corbyn can give his personal views on Trident without problems - individual disagreeing with democratically decided party policy is actually democracy.

    4. Fact-check follow-up - public / other MPs can send in factual contra-references to highlight factual inaccuracies or personal inconsistencies. These then vetted, and independently presented in highlights version or separate short follow-up show. Could also summarise public responses i.e. Any Answers or Points of View. Hopefully force MPs to be truthful and consistent in what they say.

    SUMMARY: very different proposal to Tom's, but I think that it is one that has a greater chance of being made and one which has a greater chance of holding MPs to account.