Sunday, 9 November 2014

Previous version of People & PM 1-2-1 proposal. Updated on 11 January 2015.

There is a serious disconnect between the public and the political system. I propose a reform, a monthly TV programme, which would help tackle it

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 feasible 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 must 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 become disconnected from the political system itself.

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. This would be on live TV and the combination of an element of reality TV with the presence of the most powerful politician in the land is likely to make for high viewing figures.

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 recent book launch at No 10 Downing Street, hosted by the prime minister.

The likely subject matter and high ratings would mean that the issues raised on People & PM 1-2-1 would inevitably become part of the agenda for the national political conversation via social media, old media and word of mouth.

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 voice-over 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 would 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.

People & PM 1-2-1 could 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 or leaders’ debates at elections times.
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.

How does People & PM 1-2-1 differ from Ed Miliband’s proposal for a Public PMQs?
No details are available for this proposal which was announced by Ed Miliband in July. It appears to differ in a number of crucial ways from People & PM 1-2-1.

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

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Two proposals to Commons' Committee to improve democracy in UK

Submission to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in relation to its inquiry into voter registration and turnout in the UK


This submission is made in a personal capacity. I am a UK citizen.

I make two separate proposals. Most of the submission deals with the first proposal. 

·         First proposal. That the Committee should recommend that the prime minister of the day should appear on a monthly live TV programme. In each episode of this programme, the PM would have ten sequential five minute one-to-one conversations with members of the public. The members of the public  would be selected, as far as possible,  so that together they would be representative of the entire potential electorate – both voters and non-voters, including those not on the Electoral Register.
·       Second proposal. That the Committee should recommend that the real turnout should be reported by the Electoral Commission and the government following all elections. The real turnout, unlike the turnout currently reported, would take into account the best estimate for eligible voters who were not on the Electoral Register.

1.0               First Proposal  

That the Committee should recommend that the prime minister of the day should appear on a monthly live TV programme to have one-to-one conversations with members of the public, who would be selected, as far as possible,  so that together they would be representative of the entire potential electorate

1.1   I call the programme I am proposing People & PM 1-2-1.
        I now address the following: -
a)    The current democratic deficit that People & PM 1-2-1 should improve
b)    Details of proposal for People & PM 1-2-1
c)    How People & PM 1-2-1 should improve the democratic deficit
d)    Answers to likely questions about People & PM 1-2-1

a)    The current democratic deficit that People & PM 1-2-1 should improve

1.2   There is currently a democratic deficit in the UK because too many people are excluded from both setting the agenda for the national political conversation and taking part in that conversation.  This conversation is central to how democracy functions. It is the primary means by which a government learns the demands and preferences of the people.

1.3   This exclusion is a significant factor in the high levels of non-voting in the UK, particularly among certain demographics such as the young and the poor.

1.4   Both the categories of non-voters labelled “alienated” and those labelled “apathetic” are excluded from setting the agenda and taking part in the national political conversation.  

1.5   Currently, the UK’s political agenda is set by a small group, whom I call in this submission the “Insiders”, and the national political conversation is dominated by these Insiders.

1.6   The Insiders are given different names by different groups. Many of those who recently voted for UKIP might call them the “Liberal Establishment”, many “alienated” non-voters might call them the “1%”, and many “apathetic” non-voters might call them, simply, “Them” in contrast to “Us”.

1.7   The Insiders include leading politicians, senior people in the media and others with power and influence.  Many Insiders retain their Insider status whatever the result of a General Election.   Fleet Street editors and the editor of the Today programme on Radio 4 have far more power over the contents of the national political conversation than almost all members of parliament.

1.8    Most Insiders have all or most of the following characteristics.

·         They are middle-class or upper-class
·         They are well-educated (often private-school and even more often Oxbridge)
·         They are well-off (often earning over £150,000 p.a. i.e. in the top 1% of tax payers and with substantial assets too)
·         They live and/or work in London
·         They are middle-aged
·         They are white
·         They are non-disabled
·         They are male

1.9     It is not necessary to impute any malign intent to individual Insiders to recognise that there is a democratic deficit when a group drawn from such a narrow slice of society sets the political agenda and dominates the national political conversation.  It is inevitable that the agenda will be primarily what is of concern to Insiders, which very often will not be the issues of concern to many, if not most, of the potential electorate.

1.10    For example, when Insiders set the agenda, the national political conversation is more likely to be taken up with the minutiae of who is up or down at Westminster or the concerns of top rate tax payers (only 300,000 people), rather than the problems of millions of people at the bottom of society.

1.11    According to the largest UK poverty study published on 19 June 2014 the following conditions currently exist in the UK
·         18 million people cannot afford adequate housing
·         One in three people cannot afford to heat their homes adequately in winter
·         4 million children and adults are not properly fed by today’s standards
The Insiders rarely put these burning issues on the political agenda. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that many of the people suffering such poverty are too “apathetic” to vote. It is understandable if they think the system is not concerned with people like them and that voting is pointless.       

b)       Details of proposal for People & PM 1-2-1

1.12   People & PM 1-2-1 should give a voice to people who currently have no voice in the national political conversation.  I propose that People & PM 1-2-1 would have the following features
           In each episode there would be ten sequential one-to-one conversations between the PM and ten participants
           Each participant would have five minutes with the PM
           The PM and each participant would sit on the set as equals
           The participant would decide the nature of the conversation. Some are likely to be adversarial but others, perhaps, most, will not be
           Programme would be live at prime time with no studio audience
           Programme would be monthly
           Programme would take place in locations around the UK. The UK would be divided into 12 areas, so the whole country would be covered in one year
           Participants would not apply to take part but would be selected
           The ten participants in each episode would together, as far as possible, be a representative sample of the potential electorate from the area in which that month’s programme is based
           Participants would be selected by an organisation with the necessary skills to select a truly representative sample. It is important that this includes potential voters who are harder to reach such as the millions not on the Electoral Register
           If someone selected does not want to take part then someone who is from a similar demographic should be chosen in their place

 c)      How People & PM 1-2-1 would improve the democratic deficit

           1.13    The participants on People & PM 1-2-1 would be a cross-section of the country’s population and would include many people who currently have no voice in the national political conversation. The programme would bring a bracing blast of democratising fresh air into the current stale political debate.
1.14   Through seeing people they can identify with asking the PM about issues that concern them, People & PM 1-2-1 would help reduce alienation, apathy and anger among the public and would increase political engagement and voting.
1.15    It is likely that issues first raised on People & PM `1-2-1 would be taken up by other media and thus shape the political agenda.
1.16       People & PM 1-2-1 would make the political class aware of the real issues of concern to the public, rather than as at present the issues that the Insiders place on the political agenda.
d)         Answers to likely questions about People & PM 1-2-1
1.17     Will participants be sufficiently capable and articulate? It is true that most people will not be as well informed or articulate as the Insiders. However, what they want to ask and the issues that concern them are no less valid, as would probably quickly become apparent. It is worth remembering that one hundred years ago, it was argued that no women and the poorest 40% of men were not sufficiently capable to be entrusted with the vote. No one now advances this view.

1.18     Will PM not run rings around the participants?  A PM would need to be careful. He or she would be ill-advised to use ridicule, for example, against a member of the public as PMs do at PMQs. No doubt, a PM could still try and avoid a question but that may be difficult with a determined questioner who has five whole minutes.

 1.19       Why would a TV company agree to broadcast People & PM 1-2-1?  The BBC ought to run the programme as part of its public service remit. In any event, as no one would know how the ten “random” participants chosen each month are going to act; there will be ten mini-reality TV dramas in each episode. The programme might well be a ratings hit.

1.20     Why would a PM agree to take part? Eventually People & PM 1-2-1 could become part of the UK’s unwritten constitution, like PMQs or the PM’s weekly audience with the Queen and a PM would be obliged to take part. A PM might agree in the first place if there was sufficient pressure to do so, in order to reduce the current democratic deficit, including a recommendation by this Committee.

1.21     Would this be a good use of PM’s time?  There would be few activities in a PM’s calendar which are likely to be a better use of his or her time.
2.0      Second Proposal

The Committee should recommend that the government and Electoral Commission report the real turnout after every election

2.1   The turnout figures which are currently reported after elections significantly under-represent the actual level of non-voting as they only show the percentage of people on the Electoral Register who have voted and ignore all the people who were entitled to vote but who were not registered.
2.2   According to the Electoral Commission, in December 2010 at least 6 million people in Great Britain were not registered and in April 2011 the number was approximately 8.5 million.  Although some people may be on the register but at a previous address, it is clear that the scale of non-registration is very significant.
2.3   There are some fears that the level of non-registration will increase as a result of the introduction of Individual Electoral Registration.
2.4   I calculate that whereas the currently reported turnout at the 2010 election was 65.1%, the best estimate of the real turnout was 57.5%.
2.5   I also calculate that whereas the percentage of 18-24 year olds who voted in 2010 is  44% according to an Ipsos Mori poll, once the Electoral Commission’s estimate that only 56% of that age group were on the Electoral Register is taken into account, the best estimate of the real turnout of 18-24 year olds is the startlingly low figure of 24.6%.
2.6   Although the real turnout figure will always be an approximation, it would be an important step if the best estimate of the real turnout figure was reported after every election by the government and the Electoral Commission, in addition to the currently reported turnout figure. The reason is simple. In order to address the problem of non-voting, people should first know the real scale of that problem.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

People & PM 1-2-1 Part 2 Less than 25% of 18-24 year olds voted in 2010

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

Levels of non-voting are even worse than we are told. Less than 25% of 18-24 year olds voted in 2010

Anyone concerned about the health of our democracy should be concerned about the low level of participation in the most basic democratic act, that of casting a vote. The problem is worse than is generally understood, as the turnout figures, relied on by politicians and the media, significantly under-represent the real level of non-voting.

The turnout figures only show the percentage of people on the electoral register who have voted and completely ignore all the people who were entitled to vote but, for one reason or another, were not registered. It is impossible to be precise about the number of people this applies to but the most recent estimates are set out in a document produced by the Electoral Commission called Great Britain’s electoral registers 2011. 

The Electoral Commission’s report show that the issue of non-registration is extremely significant

  • ·         In December 2010 there were at least 6 million people in Great Britain unregistered

  • ·         In April 2011 there were approximately 8.5 million people in Great Britain unregistered

  • ·         Some people will be on the register but at the wrong address i.e. they have moved

  • ·         44% of the people not on the register in April 2011 incorrectly believed they were registered

  • ·         55% of 17-18 and 56% of 19-24 year olds were registered

  • ·         94% of those aged 65 and over were registered

The reported turnouts in the recent EU and council elections were low. They were less than 35%. The real turnouts, taking into account those missing from the register were even lower.

The litmus test for the health of our democracy is the turnout at General Elections. The reported turnout at the 2010 election was 65.1%, which was the third lowest since 1918. Taking into account 6 million who were unregistered, the real turnout in 2010, I calculate, was not 65.1% but 57.5%. 

Among certain sections of the electorate the position is much worse. According to detailed polling by Ipsos Mori the turnout among registered 18 to 24 year olds in 2010 was only 44%. Calculating on the basis of only 56% registration in this age group, produces a startlingly low figure of only 24.6% voting. That is to say, over three quarters of 18 to 24 year olds who were entitled to vote did not do so in 2010.

Politicians and the media ought to start reporting the real turnout at elections i.e. they should take into account the best estimates of eligible voters who are not registered to vote. Non-voting is a crucial issue for our democracy. The first step in addressing any issue is to know its true nature and size.

There are no grounds for optimism that the real level of non-voting will go down in 2015. In fact, there are two factors which may well push it higher than in 2010.

First, a new system of voter registration is being introduced in England and Wales in 9 days’ time, 10 June 2014. Currently, the "head of the household" is required to register all residents of the household. Under the new system, individuals will be required to register themselves, as well as provide identifying information such as their National Insurance numbers. There are understandable fears that this will lead to a considerable decline in levels of electoral registration, particularly among the young and the poor.

Secondly, many first time voters supported the Lib Dems in 2010. Lib Dem candidates visited university campuses and posed with placards giving pledges that they personally would vote against any rise in tuition fees. Most of them then quickly broke their clear and unambiguous promise. Their actions badly undermined the trust of a generation and gave powerful ammunition to the Russell Brand creed that there is no point in voting.

Democracy is a relationship between ruled and rulers and, like any relationship, it will not endure in a healthy state without care and attention. The fact that less than a quarter of the voters, who represent our future, are not engaging with the system even to the extent of voting should be a powerful warning sign that our democracy is in urgent need of reform, renewal and revitalising.

Unfortunately, the Insiders – the elite who control the political agenda, through speeches, front pages, the Today programme and the rest - are as complacent as the court of Louis XVI in 1789. 

The issues that concern 18-24 year olds are of no interest to the Insiders, so these issues never make it onto the political agenda – unless there is a riot. People & PM 1-2-1, my proposed monthly TV programme with the PM and individual voters, selected to be truly representative, meeting “as equals”, would help engage young voters and put their issues on the political agenda and let them become part of the political conversation.

After every recent election, the Insiders make ritual comments as to how lamentable the turnout has been and mutter about the supposed moral failings of the non-voters. However, they show no interest in seriously addressing the issue of non-voting.  A cynic might think that the current system, under which the rich and old are proportionately much more likely to vote than the poor and young, suits the Insiders very well.