Melanie Phillips, Michael Portillo and me

Mel P was sensible on Moral Maze, but Michael P behaved ridiculously.

I turned up on Radio 4's Moral Maze last night. The other "witnesses" were the former Sun political editor George Pascoe-Watson, the Tory blogger Iain Dale and the philosophy writer Mark Vernon.

On Michael Buerk's panel were the ultra-conservative columnist Melanie Phillips, the former Tory cabinet minister Michael Portillo, the conservative Catholic commentator Clifford Longley and the liberal contrarian Kenan Malik. So much, as I've often said, for the Beeb's so-called left-wing bias.

You can listen to the show here.

The subject of the programme, in the wake of the Gordon Brown/Piers Morgan interview and, of course, the recent row over "bullying" inside No 10, was "personality politics" -- do we have too much of it? Has it become a crude substitute for ideological debate and discussion?

I happen to think it has. Political coverage has been reduced to which leader has the nicest smile, whose wife wears the best clothes, and who can emote best in reality-TV-style interviews with the likes of Piers Morgan and Alan Titchmarsh. Voters are told to vote for the guy they "like" or identify with, rather than the guy who can best run the economy and best govern the country.

Here is the peerless Roy Hattersley, writing in this week's New Statesman:

Policies have become less important than personalities. Image has taken the place of ideas. Rawnsley is a paradigm figure from the age in which parliamentary reporting has been replaced by "sketch-writing" -- an attempt to amuse rather than to inform. The End of the Party debases politics not because it diminishes the Prime Minister, but because it reduces what should be a debate about great issues into a gossip column.

. . . It may be naive to believe that, in the age of reality television, politics should still provide something more noble than the parliamentary equivalent of mud-wrestling. But unless politicians return to the conflict of ideas, democracy itself will be devalued, and the Andrew Rawnsleys of this world will make their money by suggesting that elections should be decided by which party leader the voters would most like to see evicted from a Westminster edition of I'm a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!.

Hear, hear!

The problem on the Moral Maze last night, however, was a lack of definition. Neither the panellists nor the witnesses seemed to be able to agree how to define "personality" or "personality politics". I happened to agree with Melanie Phillips -- for the first time in my life! -- when she said, right at the outset:

There is a difference between personality and character . . . but the exploitation of sentiment and emotion by politicians is something that has gone too far.

She's absolutely, 100 per cent, correct. (Whoaaaah! There's a sentence I never thought I'd write: "Melanie Phillips is right." I think I can't breathe . . . )

But Michael Portillo wasn't happy with my argument. He went on and on about Iraq and how Tony Blair's personality had mattered in the run-up to the decision to invade Iraq, not policy issues. The lesson of the Iraq war, he argued, was that it was important to "understand the character of Tony Blair".

Really? Portillo, of course, supported the disastrous and illegal invasion in 2003 and (wrongly) predicted that all would be fine in postwar Iraq. So perhaps, on the contrary, he should have studied the issues (WMDs, UN resolutions, postwar reconstruction, etc) more, focused on the policy more, and not simply been seduced by Blair's irrelevant "character", charm, personality, brilliant rhetoric, and so on.

From the start of our exchange, Portillo seemed riled, and then became very aggressive and started sneering at me. For example:

Let me just comment that many people listening to this programme will think that you pick and choose according to your own personal preferences . . . You're just somebody who's got a series of prejudices and tries to stand it up with something you claim is kind of evidence . . . Perhaps that's because you're not very good at examining your own personality.

Oooohhh! Sticks and stones, Michael. I had to point out to the former defence secretary that perhaps I hadn't had the opportunity of examining my own personality in as many TV documentaries as he had.

Portillo strikes me as the classic "modern" Cameroonian Conservative: socially liberal, pro-war and Thatcherite on the economy. Here he is in the Sunday Times, in August 2009, quoting Charles Murray (!), railing against a "culture of entitlement" and accusing the welfare state of "boosting idleness". "New" Tories, eh?

During our exchange, Portillo refused to see the distinction between one's personality and one's background. This internet dictionary, for instance, defines personality as the "distinctive qualities of a person, especially those distinguishing personal characteristics that make one socially appealing". So why should my admission to being interested in David Cameron's schooling undermine my opposition to personality politics and my dislike for the trivialisation of debate by political journalists obsessed with whether or not Gordon Brown throws mobile phones, or the number of women Nick Clegg has bedded?

In fact, I don't need to know whether Brown has a bad temper or not, but I think I do have a right to know where Cameron went to school. That's because he has surrounded himself with other Old Etonians while pretending that "we're all in this together", and is advocating economic and social policies -- such as the inheritance-tax cut -- that would enrich Old Etonians, toffs, bankers and multimillionaires at the expense of ordinary people and, in particular, public-sector workers.

As Polly Toynbee pointed out in the Guardian in December:

If politicians often come from private schools and well-heeled families, sadly that's not surprising. The 7 per cent of people emerging from private schools dominate disproportionately in top universities, the Bar, medicine, the City, journalism and any well-paid profession. But politics is not like other professions. Background becomes significant if people go into parliament and devote their lives to preserving the privileges of people like themselves. Osborne and Harriet Harman were both St Paul's pupils. The big difference is that she has spent her career trying to promote fairer life chances for those without her privileges, while Osborne and his fellow frontbench Etonians seem bent on defending theirs.

I tried to make a similar argument on the Moral Maze but Portillo wouldn't have any of it. He kept bellowing:

You think it's an important point.

Not just me, Mikey. In 2006, for example, even the Tory-supporting Sunday Times commented that "David Cameron has more Etonians around him than any leader since Macmillan" and asked whether he could "represent Britain from such a narrow base". Perhaps Portillo should read his own newspaper before getting worked up on the radio . . .

Overall, I have to say that the former defence secretary is a man who seems rather bitter about having failed to get the top job in the Tory party. He "joked" at the start of the show that his own personal issues had been an obstacle to his ambitions:

It hindered me, which is why I am now sitting around this table, of course, rather than being gainfully employed in government.

Towards the end, he remarked:

I happen to have been at a disadvantage in politics, not having had children . . .

Bitter, Michael, bitter . . .

On a side note, I'll probably get pilloried for saying this (hey, when has that stopped me before?), but I couldn't help but be annoyed at how I got such a rough ride from Portillo, including personal attacks on my own "personality", while the Tory witnesses (Dale and Pascoe-Watson) had such an easy time. You might think the former political editor of the Sun might have some tough questions to answer about the manner in which that newspaper has so debased, devalued, trivialised and undermined British politics in recent years (Monday's headline: "The Prime Monster"). Not on the "left-wing" BBC.

By the way, the most bizarre, ridiculous and conservative line of the night came not from Portillo or Phillips, nor from the host, Michael Buerk, but from the panellist Clifford Longley, the Catholic commentator and leader writer for the Tablet, on the subject of whether or not Cameron's Etonian background was of relevance to the politics of personality:

What do you make of it, though? Eton would claim to be a place where moral character is imparted. You might therefore put it to his credit that he's been in a place where character is taken very seriously and regarded very highly.

Damn those BBC pinko lefties and their hatred of public schools, eh? Long live Eton College!

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.