Adversarial politics, transparency and independence – some questions.

Ding Dong! An argument can draw crowds. But can it solve anything?

Ding Dong! An argument can draw crowds. But can it solve anything?

Here’s a good post from an Australian blogger on the question: Is adversarial politics damaging to our democracy? (It’s actually an update on a previous post with that title). Here the adversarialism is opposed by a more attractive ‘deliberative’ model of the kind advocated here. The flipside of this argument is put very well by Peter Levine here:

“As I told the Christian Science Monitor in 2006, “Polarization tends to be a mobilizing factor in getting out the vote.” At CIRCLE, we helped to organize randomized experiments of voter outreach with the goal that the parties would learn new techniques and compete more effectively for our target population (youth). I believe we and our colleagues had some influence on the parties and thereby helped boost turnout. We also funded a study that found that parties were under-investing in their young members. Again, our goal was to persuade them to become more effective.”

There is, of course, the adversarial politics of Parliament and the media that we are all familiar with. These arguments are fairly well played out, though they are always worth revisiting. The obvious conclusion, for me is a somewhat muddy preference for a bit-of-both.

However, there is the often-overlooked challenge of adversarial legalism’ towards a supposedly ‘elite-dominated’ form of representative democracy in which various minority groups seek to take a role in the political process using courts to secure rights that protect individuals and minorities. Continue reading


Does the idea of ‘impartial journalism’ deserve challenging?

The BBCs Newsnight anchorman

Jeremy Paxman - The BBC's Newsnight anchorman

I’d like to look at how the requirement that is placed upon public broadcasters to be impartial impacts upon the quality of democracy in the UK. It’s a complex question, and I’d like to explore it over a few posts.

‘Impartial’ can mean many things. The most obvious expression of it is in the guidelines that ensure that correspondents are not imposing their own views on a story, and are instead attempting to assemble the facts – only the facts – for the viewers to review and draw their conclusions. The contrast between a fairly activist newspaper such as the UK’s Daily Mail (or perhaps, even better, Fox News in the US) and the BBC illustrates this very well.

Continue reading

How can politicians resist the pressures that stop them from governing well?

This time last year, Sir Christopher Foster – a long-standing government adviser on economic policy was much in evidence. There was this interview in the Telegraph, and I heard him on BBC Radio 4. The link to the programme is no longer available, but I made notes at the time. The Telegraph piece makes some very good points about micro-management, but this bit stood out in the radio programme.

Foster offered a familiar list of problems: They were … (and I paraphrase)…

  • too many initiatives,
  • too many reorganisations,
  • not enough planning,
  • many more pieces of legislation.
  • too much micro-managing by politicians,
  • the overconfidence of politicians in their own abilities

… and of course, the relationship with the media.

And that’s all well and good. But – again – why do politicians feel the need to constantly try new initiatives? Generally, if they aren’t being seen to over-react to almost everything, they can expect a well-organised personal campaign against them from any one of a few thousand professional pressure groups.

An unwillingness to either comply – or loudly denounce – any one of these initiatives – will rapidly result in that career-ending verdict: ‘Out of touch.’

And should the relatively small cadre of ministers in central government really be spending longer planning for difficulties? Surely, that’s what the professionals in Whitehall are for?

Certainly, it seems that the people that become MPs are often puzzled spectators on the whole question of public administration. They often seem to lack the basic grounding in good governance, and are prepared to be bullied by their party whips into a spiral of short-termism. They have no idea about how to get government departments to do what they are supposed to. Continue reading

MPs websites – politics on the rates?

As there are a couple of good posts in the mainstream political blogosphere touching upon the qualities that are needed to promote an effective representative democracy, today is a good day to start a blog on the subject. This post will focus on the most topical:

Both Puffbox and Spartakan are chewing over the fact that Labour MP Paul Flynn has had his parliamentary allowance docked for misuse of the weblog that he has established under that same allowance.

This scheme was set up in March 2007 with the express purpose of promoting a public understanding of Parliament. To my mind, it raises a number of questions that I will seek to answer here over the coming weeks and months. They are as follows:

  1. Do we over-fetishise political neutrality? Are the rules that preclude politicians from doing politics on the rates entirely sensible in this day-and-age? And do rules that are designed to stop this from happening actually pander to a highly anti-democratic and centralising agenda?
  2. Is this the old ‘Eunuch in a harem’ problem? Is there not something slightly distorted about going to people who are morbidly, obsessively and fanatically political people and saying “here is a budget that you can use to communicate with millions of people with an efficiency that you wouldn’t previously have dreamed of – as long as you don’t use it for political purposes?
  3. If you give an elected representative tools to communicate politically, are you necessarily giving them a political advantage? The public are increasingly turned off by political huckstering, yet politicians seem oddly keen to do it. Giving them the space to do it really effectively a bit like giving them a shorter rope and a longer drop?

I will return to these questions shortly – particularly the first one.