Opinion: How can the Lib Dems use mass media to re-connect Parliament and public?

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:

General/Topical debates:

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.

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  • Herbert Brown 2nd Aug '09 - 5:50pm

    What about a twice-weekly phone-in poll to evict the least popular house mate member of the house?

  • Yes, lets take everything that is worst about British politics and stick it on at prime time. That way even the apathetic won’t be able to ignore the true horror of how debased our system has become and the rest of us might be able to build up some momentum for [i]real[/i] reform as a result.

    I like your thinking.

  • For better or worse, when people think of Parliament they think of PMQs. Putting it on at prime-time would be a great idea.

    Broadening the audience would automatically improve the actual content too. If MPs knew that people were going to watch more than a 10 second clip of Cameron vs Brown sneering at each other on the news, they might ask fewer planted questions. If more constituents regularly tuned in, the tone would probably be more moderate too.

  • Kate:
    Get a grip. No one is interested in PMQs because even fairly stupid people can see what a pointless and obscene bit of political masturbation it is. All that putting it on at prime time would achieve would be a slight increase in the viewing figures of the channels that weren’t showing it.

  • Herbert Brown 3rd Aug '09 - 8:36am

    OK. Here’s a slightly more serious idea than the last one.

    Elect the House of Lords by simply choosing 500 people from the electoral register at random, to serve for a fixed term. If the supposed expertise of the current peers is felt to be indispensable, then allow them to continue attending and speaking (maybe even being ministers) but not to continue voting. Though – who knows? – it might turn out that 500 people picked at random would have quite a lot of relevant knowledge and experience on most subjects.

    Obviously nothing like this would ever be allowed by the politicians, but I seriously doubt that it would give a worse result than we have now.

  • The 500 random people seems like a good idea, but when you start to think about the realities of it it becomes even more unworkable. Firstly, you’re expecting 500 people to stop their careers for 5 years – to do that you’re going to need to guarantee a return to a job at the end of it, and I can’t see many employers wanting to keep a job open for that long. Secondly, salaries – if you do it randomly, you could potentially have people earning anything from nothing up to £1million a year. Where do you set salaries – do you insist that the high earners take a pay cut on taking up the role, do you insist that low earners take a cut on demitting office, or do you simply agree to pay whatever they’d been earning before? Finally, if it’s a truly random selection, how do you ensure a true reflection of the views of society? For example, the two biggest selling newspapers in the UK are the Sun and the Daily Mail, and I doubt that they would reflect the views of many who read this site.

    Moving PMQs to 7pm is one option, but how about replacing the Queen’s Speech with a “State of the Nation” annual debate, to be carried by all PSB channels (BBC, ITV, C4, C5)? The minimum coverage would have to be PM’s speech (no more than 20 minutes,) and the responses from the Leader of the Oppostion and the Third Party leader (max 20 minutes each.) Responses from SNP / Plaid and the NI parties could be covered by BBC Scotland / Wales / NI as appropriate.

  • Herbert Brown 3rd Aug '09 - 10:02am

    “Finally, if it’s a truly random selection, how do you ensure a true reflection of the views of society? For example, the two biggest selling newspapers in the UK are the Sun and the Daily Mail, and I doubt that they would reflect the views of many who read this site.”

    If it’s a random selection, it will automatically reflect the views of society. Obviously that’s different from reflecting “the views of many who read this site”, but that’s democracy for you.

    As for the other objections, obviously you couldn’t compel people to become members from the House of Lords, so you’d have to provide a box on the electoral registration form saying “I am not willing to become a member of the House of Lords”. And an opt-out even after that, I suppose.

    I was thinking of a much shorter term than 5 years – why not a year? Indeed, why not a few months? Think of it as an extended term of jury service. Or even maternity leave. On that basis you could legislate for people to be able to return to their jobs afterwards. (I think it would be preferable for people not to carry on with their jobs at the same time as being “People’s Peers”, though of course a lot of our present peers combine the role with full-time jobs.)

    It wasn’t an entirely serious suggestion, though the more I think about it, the more attractive it seems.

  • Iainm

    I disagree, sorry.

    I think many politicians treat PMQs as a joke partly *BECAUSE* of the low audience figures. Putting anything on at prime time increases its audience share and make it a much more important and credible forum. This would be great for LDs because more people would see our MPs in action.

    It would also be good for Labour, the Tories, and politics in general though, by making PMQs less of a slanging match!

  • An interesting piece that raises several intuitive ideas, which focus on the key issue of pulling our relatively backward paliament into the 21st century, and ultimately to the forefront of all of our eyes. In the last UK General Election, only 60% of those eligible to vote, voted. Obviously, the 40% who failed to bother voting were not entirely put off purely from the lacking coverage, however, would things be different if some of Jack’s suggestions were put inplace?

    I believe quite fervently that if parliament was more publicised for its debates, rather than its flaws, mishaps and petty arguing between its members, we would all have a heightened interest and knowledge in the area – hopefully leading to an increase in voting, which is surely for the best all round?!? I do agree also that more “topicality” and a better reflection of the so-called ‘real issues’ would be good. However, I would not want this to occur merely as a mechanism to enable parliament to gain coverage from the highly biased print media.

    I would also agree with the views regarding the PMQs, “the timing of the event is totally wrong.” This I feel is a key issue and a perfect demonstration of how unfriendly Parliamentry events are. How many of the 60% of the population who actually votes are able to witness any of the PMQs? And equally, how many of the 40% who do not vote are able to watch the preceedings, should they choose? I would like to disagree with ‘IainM’ on this issue, whether you believe no one is interested in the PMQs or not, surely the issue raised here is regarding transparency and widening the publics’ opportunity to view and become interested in politics as a whole?

    Equally, Herbert, you seem to have missed what the article is highlighting, and the 500 randomly selected members of the public for seats in the House of Lords is clearly flawed. Also, “If it’s a random selection, it will automatically reflect the views of society”, is simply unture. The probability that you would have an equal, non-biased selection of the populance, including all of the issues surrounding equal rights, opportunities, whilst also avoiding any prejudice etc., is utterly ridiculous.

    Nice points raised here Jack.

  • Herbert Brown 3rd Aug '09 - 12:33pm

    “Also, “If it’s a random selection, it will automatically reflect the views of society”, is simply unture. The probability that you would have an equal, non-biased selection of the populance, including all of the issues surrounding equal rights, opportunities, whilst also avoiding any prejudice etc., is utterly ridiculous.”

    I think you need to do a bit of reading on basic statistics. A random sample will necessarily reflect the composition of the population it is sampled from, subject to sampling error, which would be pretty small for a sample of 500.

    Given a bit of thought I think something along these lines could be made perfectly workable. The more I think about it, the less “utterly ridiculous” the idea of allowing decisions to be made by a randomly chosen panel of citizens appears. Of course they would not be professional politicians – that’s the whole point – and they couldn’t fulfil all the functions presently carried out by parliamentarians. I dare say the arguments would still need to be put – at least in part – by professional politicians.

    Judging by the events of this year, I think “utterly ridiculous” is a more appropriate description of the system we have now…

  • I’m not a statistician, but if a random sample is truly random, then in selecting 500 people you would be equally as likely to get 500 BNP supporters from Burnley as you would 500 Labour supporters from Glasgow. I accept that this is at the extreme, but the point is that there’s no guarantee it will reflect the views of the electorate (which of course a PR-elected upper house would.) Also, how would you ensure that there was sufficient balance in the geographical spread (something which most upper houses around the world have) to prevent one area outweighing another? It would be statistically possible to have 500 people selected without one coming from Scotland or London, for example – resulting in 20% of the UK population not having a representative.

    There may be a case for certain pieces of legislation to be examined by a public jury, however, although not a totally randomly selected one.

  • Herbert Brown 3rd Aug '09 - 1:00pm

    “I’m not a statistician …”

    You’ve made that very obvious.

  • I agree. Ianm is living in his ‘me, me, world everyone is jus like me, earns like me and looks like me’, which is bollox.

    I think you’ve got that entirely the wrong way around. You’re the one assuming that because something interests you it automatically follows that it must interest everyone else. I’ve got news for you bud, if it interested enough people then the networks would be fighting the right to show it already, at whatever time of day.

    As a matter if fact, most of the people I know are nothing like me. I vote, which makes me unusual amongst my colleagues, friends and family, and and I take an interest in politics, which makes me practically unique. When I ask any of them why they don’t take more of an interest those who don’t just glaze over and change the subject complain that Westminster is an irrelevant talking shop where middle-aged grey men hold farcical debates in a strange olde worlde variety of honourific English while their friends yell at each other in stupid voices, debates which seem to make no ultimate difference anyway because the government has a big enough majority to ensure it can pass whatever legislation it likes. PMQs is just a distillation of that; it’s a cretinous punch-and-judy show. You aren’t going to re-engage voters by putting it on at prime time, you’re just going to remind them how unbelievably shallow and insular our system is.

  • Herbert Brown 4th Aug '09 - 5:10pm

    Lonely Wanderer

    That’s interesting. I do think when considering the drawbacks of alternatives to the status quo, people should bear in mind how truly awful the status quo is – thinking of politics in general rather than the House of Lords in particular, though I think the lying and cheating over lords’ allowances should disabuse us of the conceit that the upper house is some kind of olympian assembly of the great and the good.

  • “there’s no guarantee it will reflect the views of the electorate (which of course a PR-elected upper house would.”

    No, it would represent the VOTES of the electorate

  • Herbert Brown 4th Aug '09 - 7:23pm

    Yes, the beauty of a random sample is that it would reflect all aspects of the population, to within a few percent sampling error, not just which party people voted for (and of course most “PR” systems aren’t exactly proportional in any case).

    So a random sample would reflect not only party support and geographical location, but also gender, ethnicity, age, religion, sexual orientation and so on.

  • Dave Cockayne 3rd Sep '09 - 3:35pm

    Democracy? What democracy?

    Once every few years we get to put an X in a box. This may have been acceptable when the majority of people were unschooled illiterates, but are still so untrustworthy? Our judgement seemed quite good on before invading Iraq compared to that of ‘the elite’.

    If you really want democracy in this country, go Swiss and install direct democracy. They have plenty of participation and mass media coverage of issues.

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  • By Social Liberal Forum » Daily Digest - August 2nd: on Sun 2nd August 2009 at 11:48 pm.

    […] the day. So, in no particular order here is the top of today’s picks:   1. Jack Taylor on Liberal Democrat Voice argues that the Liberal Democrats can use mass media to re-connect the public and Parliament.   2. […]

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