Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Why Tom Bradby is wrong about proportional representation

Probably the best way to sum up ITV's news output of late would be 'of variable quality', but one aspect of it that is particularly hard to defend is political correspondent Tom Bradby's trademark editorialising monologues. I of course have no way of knowing how he votes, so it would be a lazy assumption to brand him a Tory sympathiser, but it's nevertheless almost impossible to escape the conclusion that he feels his proper role is not to report the world of politics in a neutral manner, but instead to apply the values and worldview of the 'average voter'. The problem with this approach is that by aiming for an 'average' you're just as likely to end up instead arriving in an 'imaginary middle', ie. a place derived from your own unconscious assumptions and prejudices, and perhaps even the pervasive populism of the Daily Mail and the tabloids. More fundamentally, even if it was possible to speak from the viewpoint of an objectively average citizen, you'd still be excluding far more valid perspectives than you'd be giving voice to. The middle is by definition always a minority.

So, for instance, a few days ago, Bradby challenged Nick Clegg on his pro-European policies. And instead of simply letting the answers speak for themselves and allowing voters to make up their minds on that basis, Bradby felt the need to vocalise what his imagined 'normal' voter would be thinking at that moment in the following terms - "hmmm, not the Lib Dems' strongest area...we're only just starting to get to know their policies". Obvious question - who is the 'we' in this instance? Given the context, it can only really be the mildly conservative, mildly Eurosceptic inhabitants of middle England.

Another choice example was a year or two back on the topic of welfare reform, when Bradby mused that "politicians of all parties need to show the public that they really 'get it', and they haven't so far". That statement pretty brazenly shuns the perspective of countless millions of vulnerable people who stand to suffer if and when, as Bradby puts it, the politicians 'get it'.

But last night, he went a step further by wading in with his own thoughts on the subject of electoral reform. With the best will in the world, it's difficult not to interpret what he said as an attempt to shape voters' choices, rather than inform them. "Ask yourself this," he challenged the watching electorate, "is a change in the voting system the burning issue you want this election to be about? That keeps you awake at night?" Call me cynical, but I'm guessing he didn't really expect his imagined 'normal' voter to answer 'yes' to either of those loaded questions.

He also mused that proportional representation was a bizarre response to the anger over the expenses scandal, since the current system allowed for a direct link of accountability between a constituency representative and his/her electorate. Hmmm. I'd say Bradby needs an urgent refresher course on the basic principles of the Single Transferable Vote, and how it maximises voter choice, ends jobs for life for MPs, and creates a relationship between a representative and the electorate that completely bypasses the party machines.

Bradby went on to suggest that PR would lead to the Liberal Democrats perpetually holding the balance of power. But if that were true, how come that in the only hung parliament to have occurred in recent history, the Liberals in fact did not hold the balance and would have been unable to form a majority coalition government with either Labour or Tory? That was admittedly an extreme outcome, but the reality is that in most hung parliaments, the arithmetic would not permit the Lib Dems a free choice of who to 'put into office'. The inevitability of parties other than the largest three holding a substantial chunk of seats means that the "perpetual kingmaker" scenario is a myth. In any case, in a situation where the GB-wide polls are showing a genuine three-way split, it's outdated and faintly ludicrous to still be painting the Lib Dems as the kingmakers. Even in third place they would only hold that role in a balanced parliament if Labour and the Conservatives choose to bestow it upon them - those two parties could always work together if the idea of Lib Dem influence is so objectionable to them. Now, there's a thought - but one that has apparently yet to occur to either party, much less to Bradby.

But the part of Bradby's monologue that really gave the game away about his own prejudices was when he talked about the strengths of the current electoral system in semi-mystical, almost Burkean terms. He explained that it had "evolved over a very long time" - the implied message being 'tamper with it at your peril'. This is demonstrable nonsense. First-past-the-post is not a complex system that carries some kind of unfathomable collective wisdom drawn from centuries of tweaking and honing by trial-and-error - it's in fact a very simple system that has stayed exactly the same for centuries for the straightforward reason that it has always suited the political elite of the day to maintain it unaltered.

Remember - given Bradby's status as a broadcast political journalist in the middle of an election campaign, it's not even necessary to prove that he didn't have an arguable point in order to demonstrate that his monologue was inappropriate and stepped way over the mark. It's sufficient merely to show that he wasn't putting forward objective 'facts' that are beyond reasonable dispute. And he quite clearly wasn't.

1 comment:

  1. As I recall it, the rotten boroughs in the pre 1832 Parliaments had evolved over a very long time as well so I'm not entirely clear why something that has stood for ages gains legitimacy per se. It's also right to recall the political system before the 1832 Reform Act was known as the old corruption. With the patronage accruing to the executive and a supine majority system parliament whose upper chamber is nominated by the party leaders, it's hard to see a great deal of difference. That's why the Tories need defeated and why complacent commentators like Tom Bradby need to reflect that we're not all content with the status quo like he clearly is.