Trashing the BBC comes at a price

Progressives should defend public service broadcasting. Flirting with the anti-BBC lobby has helped imperil it

Hatgate: one of the more ludicrous pieces of anti-BBC hysteria.

For a certain sort of Brit, the NHS and the BBC have long been at or near the top of their list of things to be proud of about their country. They’re both big public institutions which everyone in the UK knows. Their existence speaks to some of the core values of the left. They show that not everything should be left to the market, shared institutions matter and public provision can be popular.

The BBC produces a huge amount of high-quality content of all kinds — news, drama and TV. It makes lots of stuff I’d never want to hear or watch, and quite right too: it’s not supposed to just appeal to me or people like me. But because it’s not driven by market imperatives, it produces things I doubt I’d ever get to see or hear without it. It provides common coverage across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — a pan-UK public arena. It supports local journalists around the country. It’s an enormous soft power asset for the country and a news source people in dictatorships have listened to in secret. I’d be horrified to see it go.

Governments always have an uneasy relationship with the BBC. That’s natural enough: journalists are meant to be a thorn in governments’ side. One of the licence fee’s plus points is that it’s not general taxation, so the tension’s reduced a bit: it’s not a direct case of biting the hand that feeds you. But rows about what the BBC does, how it does it, whether it reports fairly and so on are nothing new.

What is new is a government as determinedly hostile to the BBC as Boris Johnson’s. Their hostility extends to public service broadcasting more generally and fits a wider pattern. Today’s Conservatives seem hostile to scrutiny and independent institutions in a way which goes beyond the norm. Threatening Channel 4’s licence in retaliation for empty-chairing the Prime Minister and the ongoing boycott of the Today programme both set an unnerving tone. Proposing to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee has far more to do with an anti-BBC agenda than its (dubious, in my view) policy merits.

Faced with the possibility — hinted at before the election, floated by the former Culture Secretary and trailed in this week’s Sunday Times — of actually moving towards a subscription model and slashing the BBC to the bone, the Opposition should be rallying to its defence. Frankly, if Labour can’t even defend the world’s best broadcaster and one of our great public institutions, I’m not sure what the point of it is.

Sadly, most of its would-be deputy leaders haven’t got the memo. Ian Murray was an honourable exception. But Angela Rayner said she was ‘no big fan of the BBC’. Richard Burgon referred to the BBC ‘misreporting’ the news. And reaching the real nadir, Dawn Butler said ‘in a way, I thought “OK, that will teach you”’. They all went on to support the principle of a public broadcaster. But it’s more than a little reminiscent of Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘seven, seven and a half out of ten’ response on how strongly he felt about not leaving the EU.

You don’t have to claim the thing you’re backing is perfect. But in politics, you can’t sound lukewarm about which side you’re on when the chips are down. Rebecca Long-Bailey’s comments on a ‘People’s BBC’ this weekend were equally unhelpful. For a start, electing BBC ‘top brass’ is an atrocious idea. It’s a recipe for a hideous battle of obsessives and special interest groups in an inevitably low-turnout election. It’s also a road to politicising the BBC — the exact opposite of what it needs and the public wants.

It used to be mainly the right which trashed the BBC — their self-interest is clear, given a print media far more congenial to its views. Many Scottish nationalists joined in with vim after 2011 — and as the BBC’s very existence embodies the British public space they want to abolish, that’s not too surprising either. But Long-Bailey’s wheeze (not without precedent: a number of Corbynite politicians mutter about ‘democratising the BBC’) and would-be deputy leaders’ curmudgeonliness fit a pattern.

Triggered by the hard left but abetted by much of the soft left, Labour and many of its members have sounded increasingly hostile to free media per se. It’s gone far beyond reasonable discussion of concentrated ownership — booing journalists, the harrying of Laura Kuenssberg, bringing up media reform as a reaction to unfavourable coverage. And with a characteristic blend of zest for public control and suspicion of the actually-existing public realm, the BBC has become a bête noire. The self-parodying row over whether the BBC doctored the appearance of Jeremy Corbyn’s hat to make it look ‘more communist’ was a case in point.

Faced with a pincer movement like this, you’d think the centre and centre-left would be loud in defence of a core public institution. They should fear what wrecking one of the last bulwarks against a retreat to rival echo chambers might mean. And in fairness, the Liberal Democrats have been clear where they stand in recent weeks. But far too many self-defining centrists have not, usually as a result of Brexit. Dawn Butler’s ‘that’ll teach you’ has its counterparts. Andrew Adonis advocating a subscription model and even calling for the BBC to be in court for giving Brexiteers a platform) is a case in point. AC Grayling offers a daily exemplar.

Together with a stonking Tory majority, the result is a better climate for an assault on public service broadcasting than ever before. Britain is not Twitter, of course: plenty of Conservative voters value the BBC. Unease is spreading on the Tory benches. It’s not a foregone conclusion at all. But Opposition parties — and campaigners — need to stop making the Government’s job easier.

Yes, the BBC can merit criticism. I think it’s too inclined to juxtapose factual claims rather than evaluate their truth. I think it struggles to deal with a level of political dishonesty and bad faith we mostly haven’t had to deal with until fairly recently. I sometimes roll my eyes at solecisms in policy areas I know about. At the last election, I think it was too quick to frame an initially much more multiparty contest as a battle between the big two. Its reaction to Samira Ahmed’s totally justified complaint was dire. Some of its journalists should probably just tweet less.

But there’s a difference between constructive criticism and wholesale trashing. Criticise the BBC’s calls on election coverage: don’t say it ‘decided not to be impartial’. Argue for it to be bolder in challenging factual untruths: don’t call it the Brexit Biased Corporation. And recognise that a public service broadcaster’s job involves giving space to views you don’t like, not just playing your worldview back to you.

Because if the BBC becomes a British PBS for lack of champions, Britain will be far poorer for it. The scrutiny of government will weaken. And if you’re on the left or in the liberal centre, you really won’t like the media world you’ll get once the BBC’s brought low.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 17 February 2020.

Take votes seriously

We’re treating the whole electoral process as a partisan football, and it’s bad for democracy

Today the House of Commons will vote on, and probably reject, an early general election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA). It will do so for a range of reasons. A lot of Labour MPs fear the verdict of the electorate. Some MPs still want a second referendum on EU membership before any election. And others are arguing about the date and the format.

I accept that elections are the core of politics. Inevitably, they’re subject to politicking. But we should expect some basic seriousness about what needs to be in place for the public to have confidence in them. This is, obviously, true of all sides. But oddly, much of the worst ignorance and indifference is currently coming from those keenest to dismiss the legitimacy of the 2016 vote.

A referendum is not an on-off switch

Many still argue that a referendum should be held before an election (or perhaps on the same day). Some still pursue the chimera of a caretaker government. Others seem to think that Parliament can, as it did with two extension requests, legislate to impose one on the current government.

It’s painfully clear that this government would not play ball. The idea that a second referendum can happen without a government which will is absurd. This is not the Benn Act. The European Union Referendum Act 2015 was a much more complicated piece of legislation (67 pages long), related to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. There were also 132 pages of conduct regulations made by ministers under the Act. The Electoral Commission tested the question set out in the Referendum Act and did some proper research, at the government’s behest.

If you doubt that these things matter, look at the row between Scottish nationalists who want a Yes/No question and Scottish unionists who prefer Remain/Leave. Who is going to ensure any question in a second referendum is scrutinised properly with no government willing to refer it? Who is going to deal with the conduct regulations? Are they all going to be in statute? Will a new Act delegate another group of MPs to play government without civil service backing?

The Constitution Unit suggested 22 weeks as a ‘bare minimum’ timetable. I might add that both the 2014 and 2016 referendums won express election mandates before being held. I would argue a rerun would benefit from a similar mandate. But to suggest a rushed six-week timetable for a new vote, steered through in a panic and with none of the consultation, lead-in or public information in the last one will be seen as legitimate by whoever loses it is farcical.

We do not have a government willing to cooperate with a second referendum. It is abundantly clear that we are not going to get one in any reasonably foreseeable circumstances in this parliament. Unless Labour decides that someone apart from Jeremy Corbyn can lead one and unless whipless Conservatives suddenly decide they prefer a referendum to Johnson’s Deal, the whole thing is a parlour game. Worse, it could be a route to a botched and illegitimate referendum.

The franchise is not a plaything

Most mutterings about changing the franchise before the next general election are probably excuses not to vote for one, in the main. Nonetheless, more than one parliamentarian has suggested that any one-line Bill to allow a general election could be amended to extend votes to 16-year-olds. Commentators have speculated about doing the same for EU nationals. I dislike the idea of a one-line Bill to get around the FTPA in any event: I think it sets an unpalatable precedent. But this would be a wholly different level of bad behaviour.

Franchise extensions are reasonable things to support in principle. I’m mildly in favour of votes at 16 and I haven’t made up my mind about the nationality question. But the idea of trying to change either in less than two months is absurd. For a start, 16- and 17-year-olds are not currently on our registers as enfranchised voters. Some are registered as attainers (soon to be but not yet eligible to vote). But even with that caveat, you are talking about registering over a million people in weeks with no public information campaign.

EU nationals don’t raise any new registration issues. They should already be registered for local, devolved and European elections, though this has not been problem-free in the past. But again, you can’t deliver the sort of public information campaign you need in time. There are reasons the OECD recommends a lead-in of at least a year for changes to electoral fundamentals.

Democracy is not a process to be tampered with lightly

To their credit, the Liberal Democrats (co-sponsors of the one-line Bill approach) have made clear they wouldn’t support changing the franchise in this way. But too often, because they’re playing British politics for such high stakes, MPs risk forgetting the need for a sense of basic political self-restraint.

Democracies cannot thrive if politicians have no respect for the rules of engagement. That’s especially true for a country like the United Kingdom, where we have so few formal protections and rely so much on good behaviour. We, more than most, need our governments and our legislators to draw the political line for themselves. For the most part, I’ve been sympathetic to Parliament asserting its power against a government which treats it with contempt. But there’s a limit.

In the end, MPs who want a second referendum — or, indeed, anything but Johnson’s Brexit — are going to have to face the voters in a general election very soon. They will have to do so under the existing rules for elections. They should recognise that, engage seriously and make their choice. And they should stop salting the democratic earth just to put off the evil day for a few more weeks.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 28 October 2019.

Legitimacy’s limits

Parliament has the right to cancel Brexit without a referendum. That doesn’t make it wise

As the Brexit debate drags on, so it polarises. There was a time when calling for a second referendum caused some controversy within the Liberal Democrats. Few, if any, considered a No Deal Brexit a viable choice for the United Kingdom.

A mix of prime ministerial escalation, Leaver radicalisation, Remainer entrenchment and parliamentary paralysis — apportion blame as you see fit — has changed everything utterly. The public seem less polarised than the politicians, but many also just want it all over one way or another. So I can see why simply revoking Article 50 and cancelling Brexit, as the Liberal Democrats now promise if they win a majority, is attractive to some.

There is a case for that rooted in representative democracy. Our current stalemate stems from a failure of direct democracy — a blunt mandate with no government behind it and no one obliged to see it through. Most of our representatives backed Remain and are trapped with a mandate they deem a mistake. Parliament cannot agree on any deal. The question on any referendum ballot paper will be fraught. It is far from certain that enough voters would accept losing this time around. Better, the argument goes, for Parliament to face its responsibilities, reverse a decision and be judged by voters.

I still think MPs made a grave mistake in not ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement before it was too late. In my view, we will all pay a heavy political price for that failure. I dislike referendums’ reductiveness and fear their divisiveness. They should be held rarely and with care. The prospect of another referendum campaign evokes something near to dread. And yet, if MPs wish to stop Brexit, the idea of doing so with no direct mandate from the people fills me with more foreboding still.

Referendums give discrete answers to discrete questions. By their nature, a question with only two answers produces a majority outcome. In the UK, we have used them arbitrarily, whether to paper over the cracks within a party or to lock in a decision for the future. But so far, we have accepted the results of referendums authorised by Parliament as politically binding, though usually not legally effective on their own.

General elections, meanwhile, raise a slew of questions and produce elected individuals. The question asked of voters has as many answers as there are candidates. Given our voting system it is rare indeed for the government of the day to reflect a majority of the popular vote in any sense; with a more proportional system, any such majority would still result from negotiation and not directly from elections. The Liberal Democrats — the party of fair votes as they (and I) see them — ought to see a problem with cancelling a 52% referendum result on a voteshare somewhere between 35% and 40%.

They, and others tempted by their policy, should also consider the risk of reversal. The idea that referendums solve difficult issues is something of a bad joke in Britain today. It is not obvious, however, why lowering the threshold for such major political change will add any great sense of finality. Quite the opposite: if one government can revoke Article 50 without a referendum, its successor can trigger it too.

Unionists should also steer clear of that precedent. The Scottish referendum may have poisoned Scottish politics, but there was a time when the SNP argued a majority of Westminster seats would be enough. Some say the same about a majority in Holyrood. To her credit, Nicola Sturgeon has resisted those voices. And of course, it is clear that the end of the Union is not in the Scottish Parliament’s legal gift. Nonetheless, some examples are better not to set. I have no wish to pave a road to Catalonia.

But above all, advocates should consider whether it is democratically tenable to seek to reverse a referendum without a referendum. ‘Undemocratic’ is a very strong term, and not one I will use. But such a course pits parliamentary against direct democracy with a starkness which is unwise. Its democratic legitimacy can reasonably be questioned, far more so than a second referendum mandated (like the 2016 one) by a general election. And it is dangerous in any democracy to get too far out of line with what huge swathes of voters deem legitimate.

It also privileges an overly narrow sense of a representative’s role. Ultimately, direct democracy is a periodic add-on and representative democracy is an essential. Those of us who mainly emphasise the latter often cite Edmund Burke’s famous speech to the electors of Bristol:

Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

I believe in that maxim. The retort that Burke lost holds little water: it was for him to make his judgment and for the voters to make theirs. But ‘judgment’ and ‘opinion’ are different things, and they only partly overlap. In a modern democracy, MPs’ judgment must balance many factors. Of course personal opinions must be included in that balance. But so must party policy (parliamentary democracy needs parties), what might command a majority in Parliament, constituents’ opinions — and, yes, referendum results.

Representatives are not delegates, but nor are they philosopher kings. They should have played that role better and found a compromise before our politics became this poisoned. But if parties seek to reverse Brexit rather than meet the other half of the country halfway, better by far to recognise the enormity of that shift and at least present it for ratification.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 16 September 2019.

Revisiting representation

It is hard to overstate how large a challenge to the parliamentary system the EU referendum result represents. Around three quarters of MPs judged that the UK was better off in the EU. But despite their judgment, our economic and geopolitical compass is being reset.

Our current predicament is a perfect demonstration of the problems of plebiscitary democracy grafted onto parliamentary systems. Using a referendum to validate a permanent, crucial step a government wishes to take is one thing. Sometimes the people should authorise a change in the rules of the political game as well as Parliament.

But here, a government offered a dramatic change it deemed profoundly unwise, with no plan for how to do it. It didn’t have a plan for Brexit, because it didn’t want Brexit. It couldn’t offer a prospectus, because any Brexit deal depends on the views of our EU partners as much as our own. That’s not its fault. But there wasn’t even a negotiating pitch to scrutinise. The Scottish referendum in 2014 abounded with dubious assertions. The Scottish Government’s White Paper was full of holes. But at least the holes were there to be picked.

In 2016, we were offered a promised land without any Moses tasked with getting us there. The unreality, the wilful dishonesty about what can and cannot be done, continues to this day. And in the name of democracy — in the name of the people — attempts to expose that are being delegitimised by government. The public were promised the chance to take back control from Brussels. Instead, the Government has taken yet more control from a cowed Parliament.

Defending parliamentarism

So as many have said, we need to stand up for parliamentary democracy. We elect people rather than choosing policies directly for good reason. Government is not a series of on-off and one-off decisions: policies need to be pursued over time and there are many variations. Further, policies intersect with each other. Deciding everything separately and giving priority to everything ultimately decides and prioritises nothing. (Electing people to run one particular service is a bad idea for similar reasons.) Representative democracy requires policy to be discussed: as we’ve seen, referendums can serve to prevent that.

Parliament needs to reassert itself, and we all need to reassert some of the basic principles of a parliamentary system. Parliament has every right to be forceful in shaping how the EU referendum result is implemented. The referendum answered one question. It didn’t give our new Prime Minister some unchallengeable, quasi-telepathic insight into ‘the will of the people’. And MPs have a perfect right to make a judgment their voters don’t like and judged in their turn at an election.

A parliament of representatives?

But if we want parliamentarians to do that, we need to make representative democracy work better and broaden its reach. We need to look at how our parliament works. The public rejected the (non-proportional) Alternative Vote in 2011. We’re unlikely to get another shot at voting reform soon. But our current Parliament’s make-up makes it harder for the public mood to be reflected through representatives rather than referendums.

By that, I don’t mean first past the post isn’t proportional and that’s a bad thing, though it isn’t and, in my view, that is. I mean that major changes in voting behaviour are stifled and points of view go unheard in the national debate for too long. Sometimes that means we ignore grievances for too long. Other times it means we respond to them too uncritically, because we didn’t argue with them openly.

Take the rise of UKIP. The obvious point, from a reformer’s point of view, is that for a party to win an eighth of the votes and one solitary MP is simply unjust. I agree. Others would counter that UKIP’s rise has nonetheless had a profound effect on the behaviour of Labour and the Conservatives. Well, yes. But how transparent has that effect been? On one level it sounds admirably democratic: rather than producing a mishmash, listen to UKIP voters and address why they’re voting that way. But while a political party can often be wrong, the saying goes that voters never can be. So how do UKIP’s policies and beliefs get tested and held accountable on a daily basis, like mainstream parties’?

That should be happening in Parliament. There should be a UKIP Shadow Cabinet, UKIP Select Committee members, UKIP voices at Prime Minister’s Questions. Yes, that gives them a platform. So be it: when an eighth of voters speak, they have earned a platform for their chosen party. But it also incentivises — forces — the other parties to actually argue with UKIP, not just ignore it and then try to flatter its voters. Every so often it’d get its way, but then it seems quite capable of doing so without MPs.

Its presence in Parliament, if earned, could have been an early warning for Parliament. In 2004, I was all for allowing free movement from the new EU member states from day one. Strategically and economically, I stand by it: we kept and cultivated friends in eastern Europe and we were richer for it. But politically I was utterly, catastrophically wrong.

Now, it’s quite likely that the House of Commons elected in 2001 would have had a few UKIP (or Referendum Party, or whatever) MPs, probably not all in Conservative areas, to raise the alarm about enlargement. Perhaps we’d have responded by imposing transitional controls after all. Perhaps we wouldn’t have. But the early warning mechanism would have been there. We might not be leaving the European Union now.

What kind of reform?

Reform doesn’t have to mean some remote national list system where parties with 1% of the vote hold all business up. Quite the contrary: British traditions of constituency representation and keeping party HQs from having too much control over who ends up in Parliament matter. But the idea that these preclude anything but one system, with no nod to proportionality at all, is quite some straw man. It is quite possible, building on systems we’ve already used in the UK, to design a system which fits into our parliamentary culture.

The obvious choice would be an additional member system designed to fit British political culture. Most MPs would be elected as they are now. The other list MPs could be chosen through an open list, representing local areas — not huge regions. A system where an area the size of, say, Surrey has 6–7 constituency MPs and 4–5 county MPs really won’t fling us all into Israeli-style chaos. The electoral areas wouldn’t be big enough — though you could add a 4–5% threshold to make sure. And the number of county MPs per area would be small enough for voters to meaningfully choose individuals, not just parties.

This would mean an end to the days when 10% or 15% of voters were denied proper reflection of their views in Parliament. That includes people whose voting choices I don’t like, and quite right too. Parliament should be the cockpit of UK national debate. Robin Cook argued that if you wanted that to be the case, you should want Parliament’s hours to fit the print media news cycle. I’d argue you should also want Parliament to represent the major strands of political opinion in rough proportion to their size.

Our current system fails to deliver that basic requirement. It also makes it harder for the two largest parties to hear from voters outside their strongest areas. Not insurmountable, of course — Labour and the Conservatives have both managed it in their time — but harder. That matters because Labour voters in Surrey and Tory voters in Tyne and Wear should have some political representation they choose. But a fairer system would also give Surrey a voice in the Labour Party, and Tyne and Wear a voice in the Conservative Party.

Co-operative government

Of course, a sensible proportional system would probably require a party to win around 44–45% of the vote to get a majority on its own. With current voting patterns, parties would have to work together to govern. Quite right too. I can see how a party with 45% of the vote — even 40% — might claim, on a moderate platform, to represent the popular will. I cannot see 35%, which my own party won in 2005, as much of a mandate to govern alone.

There is no reason co-operative government must end voter control. Parties in coalition-prone countries are generally good at signalling their priorities in dealing with others. In fact, such evidence as we have suggests our parties aren’t much (or any) better at delivering their manifestos than the continentals! Junior partners in coalition get about the share of ministries their share of seats suggests, and the broad political complexion of the legislature is generally reflected in policies passed.

At the moment, UK parties second-guess which broad electoral coalitions 35%-40% of voters might prefer. In other countries, voters themselves send a broader range of political forces to Parliament and meaningfully control their relative strengths. So in Sweden, voters know the four parties which will work together on the centre-right. But they can alter the influence each party has within that bloc — a larger say for the Centre Party, say, or the Liberals.

To my mind, that compares rather well to the UK, where mainstream social democrats and liberal-minded conservatives are (for now) wholly unrepresented by party leaderships. No doubt uncompromising leftists and traditional conservatives felt the same a few years ago. Why not let the people themselves decide how much weight they wish to give both?

Mediating mandates

There’s a tension here between two principles many constitutional conservatives cherish. The first is the doctrine of the mandate itself. In UK mandate theory, a party goes to the country with a manifesto, wins a majority in the Commons and then enacts said manifesto. The argument runs: a majority single-party government is clearly in power, clearly responsible and clearly accountable.

The second is the idea of ‘government by discussion’. This is surely key if we want Parliament, not just government, to stand up for its right to make its own judgments. Decisions should be debated and considered in Parliament, and will be so more fully than most people wish to do themselves. MPs can then be held accountable for their judgment.

It’s pretty clear why these clash. The first implies policies will be pushed through smoothly and easily; the second implies they’ll be tested and scrutinised. Obviously, no one actually treats both as absolutes. But contrasts between a pure plurality mandate and muddled coalitions are therefore unhelpful. Yes, the ‘mandate’ is more diffuse in a proportional parliament. But it’s broader, and a culture of negotiation fits better with ‘government by discussion’.

More than that, it’s government by discussion, not unchallengeable mandates, we need to bolster now. It makes sense for governments which only reflect a minority of voters and parliaments where new views find it hard to get a seat at the table to use referendums, precisely to make a mandate unchallengeable. An over-obsession with the mandate, narrowly defined, is part of the disease, not the cure.

Just now, reasserting parliamentarism means reasserting the value of deliberation, discussion and debate. To do that, we need to make sure the main strands of opinion are properly represented in Parliament. I know constitutional conservatives won’t like this argument. But they of all people should remember the old quote: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 13 March 2017.