Fixing the political system

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
13 Mar 2010

Alleged Downing Street bullying. Tax avoidance by non-domiciled party donors. The tit-for-tat pre-election game of ‘what’s your poison?’ has certainly got off to a rattling start. It’s not exactly the ‘clear choices’ we were promised, or the ‘new politics’ that gentler souls were hoping for. But at least it provides some light relief from the stark reality of Eastenders, said one waggish Lobby correspondent. Allegedly.

The Lobby is sometimes described as a ‘Westminster institution’. This is a polite way of saying it’s a well-honed screening device for ensuring that those close to ministerial power get to talk to the media functionaries those who really hold power least dislike, on mutually ingratiating terms.

From time to time, some brave soul outside the pack calls for the abolition of the Lobby briefing apparatus and gets accused of jealousy. Or someone inside forsakes their pass card and gets accused of disloyalty. Meanwhile the system itself stands charged with being little more than a conduit for privileged political leaks – though its defenders say it is a way of at least partially freeing up information that would otherwise be locked down completely.

The stranglehold of collusion-cum-conflict between hunted and hunters, politicians and press, is one of the hardest to change in modern British politics. It’s a bit like a large, fat balloon. Squeeze it on one side and it just bulges out on the other. That’s what critics are saying about the decision to allow a limited number of bloggers into the Lobby, starting with someone from ConservativeHome.com who used to be … aha, a newspaper journalist!

Some reckon that this could be ‘the bloggers’ election’ – which may be why attempts to get the new media embedded are already underway. Thankfully, there are plenty of untamed web ferrets who will go on digging. Also, the changing technology of reporting and politicking does open up fresh avenues for debate and accountability, with Twitter proving the most rapid and adaptable online tool by which to trade information and influence.

However, no-one should be fooled into thinking social networking alone is enough to ‘open up politics'. Sure, it’s bringing huge change to the style (and to a certain extent the content) of campaigning. But like that other great 2010 innovation, the presidential-style TV debate, imported across the Atlantic after almost 50 years, it is quite capable of being absorbed into the major narratives of the dominant players.

Note the way that the big three political parties and the big three broadcasters managed subtly to re-engineer ‘the leaders’ debate’ into ‘the prime ministerial debate’, neatly excluding the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru at the price of letting in nice Mr Clegg.

The Liberal Democrat chief will possibly exact the most capital out of these carefully manicured televisual proceedings. But he won’t end up in Number Ten, so the Labour and Tory machines are not too concerned. Those who want to see substantial change rather than a re-jigging of the parliamentary benches should be, however.

If the Westminster-dominated game depresses you, you think the system needs fixing (not another ‘fix’) and you believe politics belongs to people not just politicians… log into http://www.power2010.org.uk/ and help change things: for good.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from his regular ‘Westminster Watch’ column for Third Way, the magazine of Christian social and cultural commentary. http://www.thirdwaymagazine.co.uk/

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