Ed Miliband’s TV debates law

Following the TV debate row in the UK, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband says a future Labour government would pass a law to ensure that live television debates become permanent features of general election campaigns. The law would establish a trust to establish the dates, format, volume and participants.

I was once shocked by the alacrity with which politicians proposed new laws as the answer to any problem. Then I came to see it more as an interesting fact of anthropology. Now I see it more as an art form. The invention that goes into making new, pointless or counterproductive laws is truly a pinnacle of human achievement.

It is sublime that a politician who cannot get other people to debate with him should propose a law to force them. Exquisite that this new law should be backed up and overseen by a new quango. Uplifting that the law’s proponents should think that the process would be fair, democratic, and easy.

It won’t, of course. As I have mentioned here before, it is by no means clear that TV debates have any place in the constitution of the UK. After all, we do not live under a presidential system, and we do not elect presidents at general elections. Rather, we elect individual Members of Parliament in our local constituencies, and it is those MPs, or at least their parties, who decide who goes into 10 Downing Street. TV debates, by contrast, suggest that we are in fact electing a head of government. They suggest that individual MPs are of no account, mere members of that person’s Establishment. They suggest that we are electing an executive, not a legislature that can hold the executive to account. Already, the executive in the UK has far too much power over Parliament, and Parliament has too little control over the executive. TV debates can only make that imbalance more profound.

As for timing, who knows if the five-year fixed election cycle, introduced in 2010, will last? If parties split on key issues, for example, the country might find itself without a coherent government. The calls for a fresh election would be overwhelming. And how to decide who should debate anyway? Is it decided on the basis of current representation in Parliament (in which case UKIP, though polling 15%, would be nowhere)? Or on the basis of the polls (in which case the Lib Dems, currently part of the government, would be nowhere)? Should parties that stand in only part of the UK (the Scot Nats or the Ulster Unionists, for example) be represented in the national debate? If so, how deeply?

The only people who would win every time are the lawyers. I sometimes wonder if, like the mice in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it is actually for their benefit that the world is currently configured.

RIP Matthew Young

MJYoung June 2012

 

We are very sad to report the death of our friend Matthew Young, who died suddenly at the weekend following an undiagnosed illness. He worked on major projects for the Adam Smith Institute, but also had a significant career in government, under both Labour and Conservative administrations.

Matthew rose quickly through Whitehall to become Private Secretary to Lord Armstrong, head of the civil service under the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath, in 1971. He went on to be Press Secretary to the Labour Prime Ministers Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, conducting twice daily Lobby briefings in Downing Street and preparing instant responses to the numerous political issues that arose.

From 1976 he became responsible for policies to control and reduce costs in the civil service, with direct responsibility for controlling expenditure limits on government departments. During this time he exposed some of the profligate spending in ministries – such as the Ministry of Defence, which he found was still issuing detailed specifications on headlight seals for their trucks, long after this technology had been replaced by cheaper, more reliable one-piece headlight manufacture.

In the Thatcher years, Matthew worked on privatisation, drafting plans to privatise HMSO, the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, the Building Research Establishment and the Agricultural Development Advisory Service. He also pushed forward the contracting-out of Defence functions such as Navy Air Training, Radio Communications, and Met Office observation functions. He estimated that these activities amounted to more than £300m of savings for the taxpayer.

In the 1990s he directed major projects for the Adam Smith Institute, involving key players from industry, government and the civil service. One of these, the Trafficflow Project, identified the potential for road congestion pricing in the UK, and convinced the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, to adopt it. Another, involving national pension and finance experts, laid out plans for a simplified pension system, which was the foundation for the Stakeholder Pension introduced soon after.

From 1996, Matthew created his own think-tank, Public Policy Projects, concentrating mainly on health policy. Hundreds of key players from private and public sectors would attend his events and Parliamentary Breakfasts, to hear an impressive array of ministers and experts talking about current concerns.

The Adam Smith Institute has lost a good and loyal friend, and someone who not only thought deeply about the structure of government, but actually made change happen.

President Cameron and the TV debates

David Cameron’s decision on the TV debates was one of the worst of his life. No, not yesterday’s ‘final offer’ to the broadcasters of only one 90-minute debate with seven (or eight) parties represented, and held well before the start of the ‘short campaign’ prior to the General Election of 7 May. Rather, it was his decision to push for TV debates five years ago, when he was Leader of the Opposition, that caused the damage.

In purely ‘political’ terms, that decision quickly back to bite him. It gave an opportunity to the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, to come forward as the ‘Anti-Westminster’ candidate, boosting that party’s standing and forcing the Conservatives into coalition.

TV debates of course always help the underdog and damage the government. So now that Cameron is Prime Minister, he is facing the same calls for debates from Labour and the smaller parties, and is having to take the same criticism he launched at PM Gordon Brown last time, that he is ‘frit’ of defending his record.

But there are two, more fundamental problems. The first is that there is no logical way to decide which parties should be represented in TV debates. The debates are, after all, seen as a ‘national event’, rather than some throw-away entertainment, so it is important that they should be fairly structured. But it is impossible to include all of the dozens of parties, including pop-up parties, who contest seats in the General Election. So where does one draw the line? The Liberal Democrats may be sharing power, but they are polling little better than the Greens. UKIP has come from almost nowhere, but now out-poll the Liberal Democrats, so should they be included at the expense of the LibDems? And the Democratic Unionist Party (and Sinn Fein for that matter) may well stand only in Northern Ireland, but they are key forces there, so should they be on the platform too?

There simply is no objective way to decide. And no answer is going to suit every party. (And it is for this same reason that taxpayer funding of political parties can never work either – unless the two biggest parties simply divide the funding up between them and resist any claims from ‘upstarts’).

The most serious problem, though, is a constitutional issue. Britain’s governmental system is not supposed to be a Presidential one. True, the Prime Minister has many of the powers that a US President has, powers that once belonged to the monarch (like initiating wars and signing treaties, without troubling Parliament overmuch). But the Prime Minister is not just an executive, but still a member of the legislature – a Member of Parliament. When British voters go to the polls, they are supposed to be electing their local MP – someone who will actually hold the government to account. They might take into account what that might mean in terms of who moves in to 10 Downing Street, but in all but one constituency, that is not who they are electing.

There is an argument that the executive in Britain has too much power, precisely because it also controls the legislature. Of 650 MPs, a hundred are on the payroll, a hundred would like to be, and two hundred on the other side are lining themselves up with the same in mind. So party leaders and offers have enormous power, and Parliament has very little restraint on them. Maybe we should be separating the executive and legislative branches. Certainly, the last thing we should be doing is deepening the power of the executive further. But this is precisely the effect of TV debates. They focus attention on just one person, boosting centralism and central power. That is not healthy for any nation. Frankly, there should be no TV debates at all.

The end of local authority libraries

Local-authority-run public libraries are going the way of launderettes and video stores. Technology has swamped them, and they haven’t responded to the changing pattern of demand. We still have 4,145 public libraries in the UK, about fifteen times as many as we had in the 1920s, despite the fact that more and more of us access our reading material (and even our phone books, newspapers, dictionaries and encyclopaedias) in digital form, that over 84% of households have internet access (76% of us access the web every day) and pretty much all schools have and use the internet.

Bookshops have responded to these changes, bringing in cafe-style environments and organising events and book clubs that bring people into the shop, where they might just browse around and buy something. Libraries like to say they are doing this sort of thing, but it is half-hearted. Birmingham says its new library will only do events that are self-funding, for example: no concept of using events to bring more people in. That dearth of thinking is why Birmingham has discovered that the £10m-a-year cost of running its £188m spanking-new library (which of course won lots of architecture prizes) is unaffordable, given all the other urgent demands on the city’s budget.

It will always be like this. Local authorities have to provide life-saving services, social care, transport, roads, schools, you name it – libraries are always going to be something of a luxury, particularly when 70% of the borrowings are fiction, and much of the rest are about cookery, DIY and cars. Local authorities know this is not  a debate about ‘public education’ but about free entertainment for largely elderly and middle-class users.

LSSI, a company founded by librarians, which works with 78 communities in the US, reckons it can cut the UK libraries budget by 35%, increase opening hours, raise the number of library users, and still spend ten times more on books. Frankly, it is about time we put libraries out to commercial tender.  Let us specify what they are actually there for – not something that up to now there has been any public debate about – and the outputs we want, and then invite private, voluntary and charitable groups to make an offer. You can be sure of two things. Firstly, they would not build £188m white elephants, but would create libraries near to shops, schools and other places that people find local and convenient. And secondly, that the entire business would be revolutionised in short order, leading to everything that libraries are supposed to be there for being do cheaper and better.

Ending the BBC licence fee

Today, BBC Director-General Lord Hall will say that the corporation will back plans to scrap Britain’s 1930s-style TV licensing fee. That’s good. Unfortunately he wants to replace it with a broadcasting levy on every household – whether or not they own a television. That’s bad. Indeed, it’s crazy.

Why should households pay a levy to support broadcasters, even if they have no television? Or even if they have a television but rarely use it? It’s a broadcasting poll tax, which will impose the biggest burden on the poorest households, like the one-parent families who, already, account for the bulk of the prosecutions for non-payment.

And what’s the logic of it anyway? That we need broadcasters, and the licence fee is no longer a realistic way to pay for them? Firstly, you can question the extent to which we need broadcasters. Many of us live quite happily without needing daily doses of Call the MidwifeDeath in ParadiseCasualty or for that matter Premier League football: why should we subsidise those who can’t? Politicians might reckon that Question Time and Newsnight are essential ‘public service broadcasting’, but precious few of the rest of us would mourn their passing.

Broadcasters are by no means the only people to argue that they are producing a product essential to our lives or culture, but for which it is hard to get people to pay. Newspapers are saying exactly the same: they feed us news, analysis and opinion, but we are buying fewer and fewer of their dead-tree products, picking it all up free online instead. Should we have a levy on households so that Rupert Murdoch can continue to serve us up his vital product? No, definitely not. It is up to those industries to find market ways to charge for what they produce – through advertising, for example, or through subscription mechanisms.

The BBC should do the same. Technology is pretty nifty these days, in ways it wasn’t when the BBC was created in the 1930s. For folk who pride themselves on their creativity, developing a subscription service, from which non-payers can be excluded, should not be too far beyond their wit. Or even using advertising and sponsorship, as so many other perfectly reputable broadcasters do.

If the BBC did not exist, we certainly would not invent it. Today it looks rather like a bloated fixed-line network monopoly in an age of mobile phones. A lumbering dinosaur in an age of fleet-footed niche producers. So why force households to keep subsidising this sad throwback?