Our political system is stagnant - let in the air

Current rules give smaller parties like the Greens and National Health Action Party little chance to break through - could a few small changes breathe fresh air into Britain's failing political system? 

Giselle Green
3 June 2014

Image: National Health Action Party 

During the last week of campaigning for the Euro elections, I was on the receiving end of a call from a somewhat irate woman. She had just been to see the acclaimed new play by Max Stafford Clark and Stella Feehily, This May Hurt A Bit, about one family's personal experience of the cuts and privatisation of the NHS. As she was leaving, this lady was handed a leaflet informing her that a political party called the National Health Action Party not only existed but was fielding candidates in the London region of the euro elections that very week. She was delighted - but angry. 

Why, she demanded to know of me, had there been no media coverage about this party? Why had she read nothing about it in her papers, heard nothing about it on her radio or seen nothing about it on her TV? She said people were desperate for such a party and she immediately cancelled her own hospital appointment the next day, and all arrangements for the week, so she could email everyone she knew to tell them about the NHA Party. I did try to tell her that the NHA Party had that very morning been granted several minutes of radio time on BBC London plus a full nine seconds on the Sunday Politics show, and at least two minutes on regional TV three weeks previously. But she had clearly sneezed or blinked and missed those. 

The sad fact is that the overwhelming majority of voters would also have been totally oblivious to the fact that the NHA Party and a host of other parties were running in the Euro elections. Frustratingly, the media obsession with UKIP and blanket coverage of the mainstream parties meant that for most voters, the ballot paper would have been the first time they realised other parties were in the running, or in some cases, even existed. As one voter told me, “I’d never heard of you before", but he happily went on "but when I saw your name on the ballot paper, both me and my wife voted for you”. This is not how the outcome of elections should be decided. 

This is not a whinge on behalf of one political party. It is a whinge about why our electoral system doesn't allow the oxygen of publicity to any but the mainstream parties. It is a whinge that I began during the London mayoral campaign of 2012 when I was working with the independent mayoral candidate, Siobhan Benita, who was shut out of much of the debate and was the only candidate denied a party election broadcast.

Under BBC and OFCOM regulations during election times, there are strict rules that mean broadcasters are only obliged to give coverage to the ‘main’ political parties or those with a track record. And in what was the true political earthquake of the year, OFCOM decreed back in March that UKIP was ‘a major party’ in these Euro elections, basing that decision on UKIP’s past performance in Euro elections and its current standing in opinion polls.

The BBC isn’t obliged to follow OFCOM’s decision but it usually does

So voters were treated to an endless loop of interviews, phone-ins and debates involving Camiband and Cleggage. The same points repeated again and again and again. Not much 'informing, educating or entertaining' involved there. 

Even the Green Party, which actually has an MP, found itself squeezed out of public consciousness by the obsession with UKIP and the traditional Big Three. Green supporters have launched a 38 degrees petition in response, calling on the BBC to stop it’s ‘media blackout’. The BBC has received over a thousand complaints over the allegedly pro-UKIP bias in its coverage.

Imagine if just a small portion of the time spent dissecting the main parties was given over to ‘other parties’? Why can't the public hear what alternative parties and candidates have to say? They don’t have to vote for them. But at least let voters know they exist and allow them to make up their own mind, rather than being presented with a pre-selected, censored choice. It might be informative - or even entertaining. Of course the main focus is going to be on main parties, but even Nigel needs a rest from Question Time some weeks. 

But won’t this encourage “fruitcakes, loonies and closest racists”…err, I mean parties who just want ‘free publicity’ to stand?

Well, for a start it’s not free. To stand in the Euro elections costs £5,000 per region. To stand in the London Mayoral election costs £20,000. Why should small parties or independent candidates be made to stump up the money to buy tickets for the political festival of the year and then find themselves locked in the portaloo in a muddy field miles away from the main stage? 

Secondly running a campaign requires big bucks. It’s great that the Royal Mail offers a ‘free mailshot’ service to all parties, delivering your election leaflet to every voter in the land. The downside is that it costs millions of pounds to print the leaflets. And then you need an army of people to bundle and sort the leaflets for sorting offices around the country. So with their monopoly on money, manpower and existing networks, the main parties already have the cards heavily stacked in their favour to the detriment of minor parties and independents. Add on total domination of the airwaves, and you end up with a poker game that even Victoria Coren Mitchell couldn't win.  

Here's a suggestion that would at least redress the balance in a small way - and save huge amounts of money and trees. Why not restrict (or even, dare I suggest, ban) mass election leafleting and instead send each voter a single booklet containing a leaflet from each the parties running in their ward, constituency or euro region. This happens (not the banning bit but the booklet) in the London mayoral election, where candidates pay £10,000 to be in the booklet. It’s a lot of money, but adopting this idea would at least let us have one arena where candidates or political parties are given equal billing and would allow ‘other parties and candidates’ the opportunity to sell their wares to the whole of the electorate. Voters too would be happier, not having to wade through a mountain of leaflets every time they opened their front door and knowing, if they could be bothered, they only needed to refer to one booklet of leaflets for their election information. And have just one trip to the recycle bin.

And here's another idea for a future when we finally get round to implementing electronic voting: have a link to each party or candidate's website on the e-ballot paper, so you can click on their name and check them out before making your choice. 

The public as we know is disillusioned with politics and the mainstream political parties. Fewer people than ever vote tribally or even bother to vote at all. Yet our current system is stagnant and sucking the life out of political debate. Allowing equal billing in a election booklet and a tiny bit more airtime is unlikely to change the outcome of the game, but it might just let in a tiny breath of fresh air.  

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