Reading Deborah Mattinson’s excellent “Talking to a brick wall” about her time as a British Labour focus group manager. It’s one of the most readable books on the Blair/Brown period from an unusual angle, and is full of interesting nuggets. A common theme that runs through it is the gap that has emerged between the professional political class (and I include the media in that) and voters, with stories of issues that the Westminster Village regard as huge having little or no impact with ordinary voters.
Mattinson gives an example of the disconnect by explaining the awkward moment when she has to tell a politician who wants to observe a focus group that he doesn’t have to sneak in because none of the focus group have any idea who he is.
She also gives a very interesting example of the “Bigotgate” affair during the 2010 British general election, when Gordon Brown called a woman who asked him a question about immigration a bigot. Mattinson points out, quite rightly, that politicians, political advisors and journalists tip toe around immigration from a lofty almost academic height because they don’t actually encounter it in their daily lives in a negative sense. It’s a fair observation: no Guardian columnist is afraid of losing her job to a Romanian immigrant who will produce more column for less money.
But what really got me thinking was the fact that most Western democracies are going through the same thing, that is, a professional political class separate from the general population. In Britain it’s young Oxbridge graduates becoming union officials or working for PR firms, then special advisors, then a nice safe seat in parliament. In France its passage through the Ecole Nationale d’Administration. The US has a whole industry based on it. The political class is becoming a self perpetuating interest whose members, despite having nominal political differences, have far more in common as a class than they do with the general electorate.
Can this be healthy? It’s one thing having a class of technocrats running a country, people who recognise that modern society is now far more complex than even the voters understand. But a class that actually lives effectively in another world?
It’s an on-going debate, and the solutions aren’t new. More education for voters, more consultation, can we use social media, etc. Even the solutions come from the professional politicians.
Why not be more radical? Why not inject ordinary, randomly selected voters into the political system? Supposing, say, one-third of a house of parliament was made up of randomly selected adults who sit in parliament for a single year, alongside the normally elected?
Outrageous. Sure, it would cause chaos, wouldn’t it? What would they know about government anyway?
Let’s consider this:
1. Is it outrageous? If you are a professional politician, it is. I’ve suggested this to aspiring politicians, and they were everything from outraged to angry at the suggestion. You’d be surprised how many political people regard our political system as their private property.
2. It would cause chaos. Would it? Or would it force the other parties to either work together, or cooperate with the citizen members on an issue by issue basis.
3. What would ordinary people know about government? Given that they have to live with its decisions, I’d say quite a lot.
But there are other benefits too.
Suddenly, communities and families with no political interest whatsoever would suddenly find that their uncle Jack or best mate Steve is now a member of parliament to talk to. For many it’ll be the first time they’ve ever spoken to an MP. After a few years, there’s be hundreds of former one year MPs in pubs and sports clubs, just ordinary people living normal lives. Some of them will almost certainly, after a year in office, decide “Yes, I can do this better than those professional pols” and get her friends and family together and run for parliament properly.
But what if some racists or homophobes or religious fanatics get selected? They almost certainly will, if the random selection works properly. And they’ll have to voice their opinions not in the pub but in parliament, where other people will challenge them. What’s so bad about that? Don’t forget, the same random selection will also put more minorities and woman into the system than at present.
You could even start by trying it out at local level, with, say, a third of County Council seats being appointed at random.
Let’s not forget, we do something similar every day with juries, giving random citizens the power to deprive other citizens of that most precious of assets, their freedom (and in the US, sometimes their life). Asking them to discuss new laws is not such a radical leap after that.