How to call politicians to order

There are still things bugging me about the Leaders Debate.

  • The fact that the audience was not allowed to clap, boo, cheer or react in any way. To be honest the whole thing was set up to be so sterile it was close to pointless. The leaders were so busy trying to remember their lines that they didn’t even listen (and react) to the garbage the others were spouting. Or maybe they weren’t allowed; was that the agreed etiquette? (even the ghastly screensaver background made me think someone had made a decision to simply mesmerise us… it was just some ambient TV)
  • Cameron proposed a dole system where, if you were offered a job and turned it down, then you would get benefits cut or removed (the impression he gave was that this problem was so widespread and so damaging that it was destroying society… nonsense, but that’s another issue); Brown, apparently oblivious to what had just been said, pretty much parrotted the same. An no one stopped them to say actually this is already the case! I know this, I was unemployed for a period last year.
  • There was a general agreement on the “need to make cuts” but no willingness to discuss with clarity and exactness where those cuts should be. (“We’ll look after the NHS” – doesn’t seem to turn into an assurance that nothing will be cut there. Or “there will be cuts, but we’ll protect anything important” without specifying what is considered protected)
  • David Cameron believes the banks should lend small businesses more because it’s “our money” the banks have. Great, but what policies will you put in place to force the banks to do this? And how does this fit with your determination to “cut red tape” and remove regulation. It made no sense, and no one batted an eyelid.
  • Commentators discussing as if it’s a debating competition and we’re supposed to award a prize for best technique. Look how confident his facial expression was this time, how his posture has improved, how much more he smiled, how sincere he appeared, or how well he could do passion.

We need to get back to real challenge of what the politicians are saying, and actually expose them when they are saying nothing. There’s been a lot of talk of the power of Twitter in this election, but I see that as fairly marginal (aside from the interesting, and essentially private, viewing experience I had on Thursday following twitter while watching TV) – twitter is brief and silly. It’s not a robust enough form of communication for real challenge.

What we need is the equivalent of scientific peer review: Wikipedia. It gives a structured way to challenge nonsense:

  • require citations
  • forum discussing individual points and challenges
  • no weasel words
  • clear rules about relevancy etc. (prevents sales pitches)

no hiding behind pseudo-semantics.

So we’d have none of this nonsense about cuts, without any substance to the statements – because people wouldn’t let them get away with it!

It’s quite simple. I just want politicians to answer the questions that are put to them. And it’s not good enough for them to act like they think the questions aren’t worth answering.

The other big problem with the way politicians are speaking is that they are not laying out a table of exact programmes and decided policies. They want us just to like them and to trust them. They all want to “get into power” and be left to “make decisions” as things present themselves in the future. In reality there is very little of that in real politics. But people (politicians, managers…), being lazy and arrogant, want to be left to make judgements and choices at the last minute, and not have to commit now. How many times have we heard a politician say “well, I’m not going to answer a hypothetical question!” But that’s exactly what they should be doing. Unless they can be clear about exactly how they will make decisions, they’re not telling us anything!

How they make decisions is a significantly harder thing to express of course. It’s a meta-level. It goes deeper into the philosophical background of people’s fundamental beliefs. It would be fascinating to explore these, but realistically it’s even more an area politicians would not like to discuss. They actually pretend it’s undiscussable. They want to keep things vague, because they think this will make them more powerful (and incidentally explains why they are so petrified of a hung parliament) – because if they’ve committed to everything in advance, then they’re not really powerful decision makers, they’re just slaves carrying out orders…

Bah! Humbug.

Politicians should not be content with the superficial, with half-awake photo-opportunities, with making vague promises, and attention-grabbing unsubstantiated claims.

I’m off to watch the real thinkers on TED.

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