It has been documented extensively via many different platforms that Parliament and the public are more disconnected in the 21st century than at any time in history – although Parliamentarians have never been hugely popular with those who elect them.
Part of the problem has stemmed from the reduction of parliamentary coverage by mass media outlets. This can be traced back many years to the gradual reduction in the reporting of speeches in broadsheet newspapers. Speeches are now hardly ever published, and parliamentary sketch writers usually focus on specific moments during proceedings – sometimes only the trivial.
However, in order to open up Parliament to the mass media, and therefore the electorate, radical reforms to proceedings need to take place. The problem lies with the fact that many people who care about ensuring that Parliament is a more trusted institution are relatively conservative in nature – even if they are radical in other ways. In an institution where clapping is seen as unprecedented behaviour, you know you have a long way to go.
It is clear that media coverage of politics has moved on far more than Parliamentary reform. Here are two suggestions that could be implemented to bring Parliament in to line with 24 hour media output:
It is clear that if Parliament is going to be able to convince broadcast and print media to cover events in both houses to a higher degree, there needs to be a lot more topicality to the issues discussed. In other words Parliament needs to better reflect what is being discussed outside.
One suggestion put forward by the Labour MP for Gloucester, Parmjit Dhanda, was that social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook could be used to conduct polling to decide on the subject of the topical debate. A further suggestion that I would put forward would be to have a ‘Schools Topical Debate’ – similar to the Schools Question Time – in which schools voted on the theme for the debate.
In order to extend this idea – and this is where we get radical by parliamentary standards – schools could be selected to take part in the debate by putting up speakers to make brief pre–written interventions from the Bar of the House. These interventions could be the collaboration of the whole class and would then be subject to a response by the Minister and Shadow Minister. Schools involved – particularly in a new initiative would gain a lot of coverage from their local and national media.
Despite the obvious discrepancies with the format and the style of the exchanges that take place, the timing of the event is totally wrong. This is another example of where Parliament as an institution is far behind others – who exactly holds their main PR event at a time when the vast majority of people cannot witness it? One suggestion could be to put Prime Minister’s Questions to the end of Wednesday’s business at 7pm so that it will be broadcast at a time when more people are likely to stumble across it, or be able to watch it live through choice.
These are just two suggestions that could be put forward by Liberal Democrats to enable the Parliament to become transparent and engage directly with the electorate in the democratic process via old and new media. These suggestions would by no means resolve all the public relations problems for Parliament, but in a deeply conservative arena could see an opening to a wider and more radical change.
* Jack Taylor is a Lib Dem member in Bath.