Why Eddie Mair’s Boris Interview Was A Disgrace.

First things first, I am neither a fan of Boris Johnson, nor do I subscribe to the view that he is a bumbling buffoon. Yet, Eddie Mair’s BBC interview on the Andrew Marr Show 24th April was a disgrace to mature political discourse in Britain.

Boris got skewered alright. Gone were the carefully calculated quips designed to deflect pressing personal questions. Instead, the Mayor of London looked distinctly ill at ease, squirming in his seat and glancing off camera.

Some complain that the media all too often gives Johnson a free pass on policy issues. But my experience listening to London radio is the opposite, that Johnson openly embraces the policy challenges thrown up by our confounding Capital metropolis. Whether to attack the Mayor for his public persona, or defend his unique brand of politics, it’s the media who chooses to propagate the ‘Boris cult’ of personality at the expense of policy. That’s a problem.

If the Independent’s crowing , Guardian’s shrill over-reaction, or the Twiterati’s excitable shrieks of glee are anything to go by, Johnson’s  detractors revelled in his comeuppance.  We certainly need bold journalists who probe in the right places, penetrate inconsistencies and who pick apart the lock of politicians’ public armour.

Mair achieved the latter.

But, what we saw on Sunday was a series of stilted questions delivered in monotone which made for uncomfortable viewing. Mair’s attempt to piece together fragments of Johnson’s personal life into a narrative of dishonesty and distrust, culminating in “you’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?”, was akin to the personality politics and character assassinations of US politics, not our supposedly mature political discourse.

Eddie Mair’s interview uncovered nothing new. He did not concentrate on policy, other than a cursory question. He did not help the viewer better understand vital economic and social concerns, from either Johnson’s role, locally, as Mayor of London 43e0 , or nationally, as close to the beating heart of government.

Instead, Mair served up a warm plate of regurgitated, and much reported, trivia on Johnson’s private life. But there is a deeper question – what exactly do we want from those who publicly hold our political elite to account?

If BBC political TV interviews are meant to fulfill a public education function, we need journalists to grill politicians on the key challenges we face and how our elected representatives seek to tackle them. Why have they adopted their position? Where are the inconsistencies? What does that mean for the public?

Next time, Eddie Mair, present the facts, argue inconsistencies and make them squirm as much as necessary. Give us the answers we need in the way you see fit. But, please, leave the personality politics to one side and remember that a mature political discourse is not to be forsaken lightly.

Leave the voters to decide what they think of politicians’ personal discrepancies and leave out the tabloid-worthy insults and American-style character plots. And if we can do that in a way that maintains at least a minimum standard of respect to one another, then all the better.

Andrew Marr let that standard drop in his infamous question to Gordon Brown (1) in 2009, Eddie Mair let it drop again.

Jonnie Beddall

Full interview here.

P.S. How to deal with crass questions, from the master.

1. Excuse the poor quality video and ‘torybear.com’ host.

The Ides of March

The Current Argument: 4-10th March, 2013

Last week, the Current Argument witnessed all the hallmarks of  flux currently gripping British politics.

What price of leadership?

David Cameron pushed on in the face of a torrent of criticism following the Conservatives’ failure to win Eastleigh. Most ominously, Tory election supremo Lord Ashcroft’s poll-of-polls showed all that Cameron is headed for a loss come 2015. Yet, the Prime Minister’s insistence that there can be no changing course will satisfy few backbench partisans, itching for a fight.

His defence so far has been to posture as taking the tough decisions. Cameron ducked low behind this (up ’til now) steadfast defence last week, insisting that a change of strategy would, “plunge us back into the abyss.” Yet the ramparts no longer look as unassailable as they once did.

Tough times call for tough decisions. This may be trite, but it makes for good politics, seen by Cameron’s stubbornly high personal ratings – until now. Cameron’s comparatively high level of perceived ‘statesmanship’ compared to Ed Miliband has been key to his electoral appeal, to the country, and with his position in the Conservative Party.

News of an 8% approval drop may show signs that Cameron’s ‘tough decisions’ approach is not working. With the deficit refusing to budge, borrowing high, growth anaemic and Osborne reviled, Cameron’s problem isn’t his positioning as the leader faced with the unpopular, but necessary, task of taking the tough decisions. His problem is that he’s just not taking them.

Beware the Ides of March

All the while dark plots gather. News of Theresa May’s party salons is significant as it suggests manoeuvring against the Prime Minister within the cabinet; posing an altogether greater danger than that from back-bencher Adam Afriyie. It also adds to mounting frustrations at ‘government ruled by quad (Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and Danny Alexander)’, than by cabinet.

Meanwhile, the battle for slices of the budget pie is escalating, fast. Significantly, the usually steady Philip Hammond went rogue to publically fight for the Army’s promised budget increase in the next parliament. Not only will open war within the cabinet further destabilise the faltering coalition, but it asks difficult questions about the government’s protected spending commitments. The Prime Minister looks increasingly isolated, unpopular and ineffectual.

Slow and steady…

To the left, UKIP’s rise protected Ed Miliband  from damaging headlines following Labour’s humiliating 4th place finish in Eastleigh. However, Labour’s leader is adroitly pursuing a policy review designed to draw popular poison from a support base still disillusioned over the  previous Labour administrations’ record of unchecked immigration. This move is vital for a party needing to re-engage its base.

Taken straight out of the Blue Labour handbook, I doubt whether arch-metropolitanista Miliband believes his pitch to working-Britain, who knows, but any commitment on low-skilled migrant caps makes for shoddy policy today, as when the Conservatives introduced them. An adaptable points system was always best for the economy and for controlling numbers. Hard caps don’t work, unless you go for the low-hanging-fruit and cull student visas… Economic recovery, what?

Spring thaw?

In all, last week sets the stage nicely for the coming months. But don’t be fooled by any upturn of temperature  in the Spring air, the mood in Westminster remains icy.

Labour plod on without connecting with ordinary voters. New positions may be wise, but  they feel too much like calculations than a driving vision for Britain able to reconnect with those despondent with the political establishment. A Labour win in 2015 looks likely in spite of their performance, not because of it.

Yet a win in 2015 looks all too distant for the increasingly vulnerable Prime Minister. He still may be the Tories’ most valuable electoral asset (other than Boris, of course), but how long can he keep the daggers where they belong, hidden in the shadowed halls of Westminster?

Like I said, the word is ‘flux’. It’s still too soon to see how the pieces fall.

Until the Next Current Argument,

Jonnie Beddall

Democracy in Britain: Decline, reform, and a place called Bettws

Political pundits in Britain often frame competition in elections as a fight for ‘middle England’. Each election, they invent names such as ‘Essex man’ or ‘Worcester woman’ to describe archetypal voters representative of marginal constituencies necessary to win a parliamentary majority. Bettws ward in Gwent, Wales, may not be the typical bellwether for the nation’s politics, but its significance rose with the first ever election of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) across England and Wales. Sadly, with turnout at a meagre 14%, participation in Gwent proved entirely consistent with the national picture. Less ordinary, however, was turnout in the quiet, provincial suburb of Bettws. Not one single resident voted.

The story sounds all too familiar: Bettws is emblematic of apathetic Britain. Yet another case of civic decline in a nation unsure of its place in the modern world. Her people, it is often said, increasingly care little about politics, witnessed by disengagement at the ballot box from village hall to Westminster Hall. But this analysis is too easy. Bettws is significant because it tells the story of a people who are hurting from change they don’t understand and which feels beyond their control.

Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-20361626

Look at almost any metric, and traditional forms of democratic engagement appear to be in terminal decline: Electoral turnout, party membership, average voter age – take your pick. Like those excruciatingly awkward teenage years, the British body-politic is growing in ways which see old norms rub against the new as we experiment in unfamiliar ways. A national assembly here, a referendum there –  we dip our toes into the icy waters of reform, but don’t quite want to take the plunge. The clothes just don’t fit any more. Despite setbacks, slowly but surely, as year follows year, the clamour for reformpersists. No matter in which direction your political compass points home, the current democratic framework appears incapable of realising the hopes, and assuaging the fears, of the British people.

The journey so far…

The last 15 years have witnessed a flurry of reform initiatives, some cosmetic, others lasting. We’re left with a patchwork of incongruous electoral systems and political norms. New Labour’s introduction of devolved national assemblies in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland in the late 1990s signalled the starting-shot to a race for reform. Initiated through referenda, they introduced proportional electoral formulae and ‘re-centralised’ power away from London, to Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh. The system was designed to both satisfy the needs of citizens, whose daily struggle seemed a long way from the neo-gothic corridors of Westminster, and to neuter separatists’ calls for independence. Yet, devolution backfired spectacularly in Scotland on the second count, with the nationalist leader Alex Salmond now firmly ensconced in the parliament at Holyrood. Devolution shook the kaleidoscope of politics in Britain. We are yet to see how the pieces settle.

The record for reform looks a bit like this: Three devolved national assemblies, the London Assembly, rejected regional assemblies and a rejected referendum on the AV form of proportional representation: A mixed bag. Most recently, attempts to introduce a largely elected second chamber in the legislature were [wisely, in my view] rebuffed by the House of Commons. As we saw earlier, the PCC elections were anything but enthusiastically embraced.  Most intriguing was the recent rejection of directly elected mayors in some of England’s biggest metropolitan centres, with Bristol the notable exception. However, this was hardly surprising coming from that great bastion of West Country non-conformity, which elected an independent candidate as its inaugural mayor. This was the real tragedy of a decade of botched reform. Elected mayors have a record capable of renewing the faded promise of our urban heartlands, yet were  rejected by a frustrated populace sceptical of yet another ill-defined initiative from the centre.

The civic tradition

In a decade which saw London finally grow comfortable in its own skin – as a truly global, outward looking, metropolis – it is hard to doubt the role of the two mononyms, ‘Ken’ and ‘Boris’, in City Hall. The recent mayoral reforms should never have been put to referenda, which in Britain sit anathematic to our representative system – a ‘get out of gaol’ card for politicians with insufficient political capital (or stomach) to take the tough decisions. Whilst on the local level proportional representation may well help build fairer representation, as a panacea for national revival, it seems like a hopelessly wonkish debate, far removed from people’s daily concerns. As for Lords reform and PCCs, people want politicians to get on and govern. Party-political division and further entry-points for careerists and hacks – whether in Westminster or Holyrood – are not the answer.

It 5a8 comes down to leadership. Leadership at the top, as the country struggles with the amorphous effects of global change, and leadership at the local level, through a politics tailored to the concerns of the places we live. At their best, mayors give us a mirror to hold up and reflect on the look, shape and feel of our communities – whether we identify with what we see and, if not, give us the tools to force change. So, back to Bettws ward and Newport.

The way forward

It should come as no surprise when people reject change when given the choice from the top. Whether in electing PCCs or city mayors, we have so spectacularly failed to build a narrative of what is means to be a citizen in Britain today. If Bettws is significant in its reticence to change, so too the path to revival lies in listening to its people’s concerns. Reform must compliment Britain’s organic model of representative democracy, rather than replicate the poisonous divides of our national party politics.

Bettws may be too clunky a name to be adopted by pollsters, but with the spectre of the next election looming, its message is clear: People are struggling to see how the democratic framework works for them. Ill-defined reforms entrench disengagement with the politics of the centre and, by failing to fundamentally shift the balance of power, exhaust political capital running in short 23ea supply.