How the transparency lobby fatally weakened parliamentary democracy

Go on. Admit it. You’ve gone along with this fashionable demand for a more ‘open politics’, haven’t you? You parroted all of those slogans about how ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’ didn’t you?

Now you’re wondering why hundreds of politicians have deserted their post as good representatives and voted for something that they think will be a disaster for the country, aren’t you? I bet you’ve shrugged your shoulders, tutted about how spineless they are, secure in the knowledge that it’s nothing to do with you, eh?

Then ask yourself this; How did we get to be able to push politicians around so easily?

There are plenty of explanations, but I’d suggest that no strategy that was deliberately pursued by the nationalist right was half as useful to them as the well-meant popular consensus about the value of transparency.

This folly has a very long tail. In 1978, following a pilot period to test the idea, Westminster MPs started to allow a very limited form of Parliamentary broadcasting. Initially, it was a radio-only phenomenon (televising Parliament didn’t happen for another seven years). This was preceded by a hard-fought battle between the champions of ‘open politics’ and the MPs who predicted that it would do a lot of damage to Representative Democracy.

The sceptics at the time were very prophetic. A delegation of MPs came back from the US and Canada with horror stories about an exotic thing called a ‘soundbite’. Wide eyed MPs heard about the terrible damage it was doing to the quality of parliamentary debate and the reputation of politics. In the end, in the first of many capitulations, MPs ignored their own better judgement and let the microphones in. From day one, MPs suddenly became a lot more reactive. The Hawthorne Effect — where people behave differently if they know they are being observed — kicked in. One of the first ministers to have their Parliamentary questions broadcast was Tony Benn. He was sacked later that day partly due to the embarrassment he caused the PM with his performance.

Reflecting on the changes, Margaret Beckett made a counterintuitive point:

“People know a good deal less about Parliament now than they did before it was broadcast.”

Michael White supplied a more detailed explanation that he gave to BBC Radio 4’s Archive Hour in 2008 to mark the 30th anniversary of the innovation:

“….as [broadcasting] came on board, it gave newspapers — who were under intense competition at the time — the excuse to drop their coverage of Parliamentary reporting. The fact you could get it on a TV feed meant that they felt that they were under no obligation to provide that kind of coverage.
So the coverage became more ’lobby’ coverage — what the government’s doing. And this fitted in with the trends of the time anyway — Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair — powerful executive Prime Ministers, presidential, so it was all of a piece — and the losers on both sides were the backbenchers. The people whose speeches had been reported…”

Margaret Beckett put it more succinctly: “…there is hardly any coverage of what Parliament actually says.” The quality of coverage was certainly different, and it licensed other changes in the way that politics was reported. As Mrs Thatcher’s press secretary, Bernard Ingham explained:

“Televised political programmes are not concentrating on the House of Commons. They’re concentrating on their own agenda. And much of that agenda is to examine conflict — a conflict of agendas. Now I’m not saying that’s bad, but it’s taken the debate out of the House of Commons and put it into a studio.”

In the 1970s, newspaper readership was hugely larger than it is in 2017. Today, the richer and deeper version of politics that millions of newspaper readers knew about has been replaced by a shrill, simplified and polarised alternative. This transparency led to pandering. It made it a lot easier for purposeful groups of citizens to micromanage politicians — to track them and threaten to shop them to their constituents whenever they dared express a complex viewpoint that wasn’t easy to explain to voters.

We could have stopped there, with almost test-tube quality evidence that the public weren’t actually interested in understanding or engaging with Parliament properly. We already knew this really, from Mancur Olson and Anthony Down’s work on ‘rational ignorance’. The public don’t fail to engage in the detail of democratic debate because they are stupid, or genetically unworthy. They avoid it most of the time because it’s the sensible thing to do, and they know it.

Fast-forward to 2004 and the NotCon Conference at which the They Work for You project was unveiled. It was a hugely impressive achievement. It parsed the content that Parliament generates and turned it into a useable and attractive website in the face of bureaucratic resistance. For anyone who thought that such openness is a good thing, it was an amazing achievement.

I was in the audience and I made myself universally unpopular with my view that such openness was potentially disastrous. It’s a view that I think has been vindicated, to some extent. My big objection was that the transparency wasn’t symmetrical. That Parliament has always had very effective rivals of different kinds. There’s the lobbying industry, the media, and the unelected-but-energetic parts of civil society that usually fail to represent the more agnostic and abstentious sections of the population.

All of these players would be able to pore over every utterance of politicians without giving anything away themselves. As Conquest’s Third Law of Politics puts it:

By a clever use of XML, Parliament was put into a place that Conquest would have recognised. It was fully logged, categorised and bureaucratised where everyone could find everything. As an aside, it was fundamentally a modernisation of the idea behind Hansard — a publication that was founded by the great conspiracist and proto-Poujadist William Cobbett.

The ‘parliamentary monitoring’ services that lobbyists used to charge their clients for were suddenly available to anyone who had the time and the energy to put into political activism. Almost overnight, politicians became easier to bully out of their own good judgement. The good thing was that it broke the monopoly that subtle corporate lobbies had in this area. The bad news is that it licenced an army of extra-parliamentary activists to swarm all over politicians and turn them into snivelling wrecks (at the expense of the huge majority of people who tend to general agnosticism, and who don’t have the time or energy to inflict their certainties on their MPs).

A few years later, in 2009, some of They Work For You’s prime movers led one of the first truly spontaneous crowdsourced political campaigns. They managed to stop MPs from censoring their own expenses. Again, on the face of it, a faultlessly sensible thing to do, but one that weakened elected politicians further at the expense of their unscrutinised rivals. The beneficiary wasn’t the earnest do-gooder. It was people with a far more sinister set of objectives.

Fast-forward again a few more years and we find Edward Snowden seeking sanctuary in Moscow and Wikileaks with an inexhaustible supply of unauthorised disclosure about any politician who is opposing Kremlin-backed nationalists. Where Trump was helped against Hillary, so Le Pen is hoping for similar assistance against Macron in the forthcoming French presidential elections. Meanwhile, in London, it seems that even the most seasoned of parliamentarians — the aforementioned Ms Beckett — has given up on the idea that MPs can be a moral force all by themselves.

This is what the near-total defeat for parliamentary democracy looks like. This one-sided version of ‘transparency’ has provided a tool that is a lot more primordially political than democratic. It has weakened parliamentary institutions by demanding standards that their rivals would never be expected to attain.

It is this lens of symmetry that we should use to look at the whole question of transparency. The idea that an opaque lobbyist can micromanage a politician while hiding their own funders and interests is the one that has got us to where we are today. It has happened against the backdrop of liberal complacency, and until this is shattered, we’re going to keep going backwards.

As a final word, readers shouldn’t assume that this is necessarily a call for a return to a more opaque Parliament. If Parliament’s rivals can be forced to disclose anything like as much as politicians do, it could be a step in the right direction.

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Footnote: A lot of these quotes are lifted from an old blog post that I wrote which reported quotes from a Radio 4 programme. The post is only available on the Wayback Machine now and here’s the now-removed BBC page that hosted the programme