It has long been clear that the chattering classes take their lead from Radio 4’s Today programme. Just as the sun rises in the east, so the day’s public policy agenda is set by John and Jim and their colleagues.
But as the earnest debate from passionate contributors washes over us, do we pause to wonder what becomes of the stream of demands made over the airwaves each morning? Can all those people clamouring for something to be done really hope to see their wishes come true?
During the week beginning 25 February, we at the Social Market Foundation set our alarm clocks for 5.55am each morning to record and measure the cumulative impact of Today‘s contributors on the public policy agenda. While a call for new public spending continues to be the rallying cry of spokespeople and lobbyists the world over, what struck us was the demand for legislation. In just one week, or 18 hours of broadcasting, there were calls for eight new parliamentary bills to be introduced.
This was a randomly selected week, but there is no reason to think it was atypical. At the rate proposed by the Today programme, parliament would have to cope with 416 subjects for legislation each year, more than ten times the number of government bills introduced annually in recent years.
In the parliamentary session of 2000-01, for example, just 21 pieces of legislation received royal assent. Successful implementation of the demands of Today interviewees would see that figure surpassed in less than three weeks. Moreover, during the Blair years, the average bill, from introduction to royal assent, has taken just under 13 hours of debate on the floors of the Commons and Lords. (Contrary to the popular wisdom that this prime minister disdains parliament, this is actually double the time taken by the previous administration.) At that rate, which does not even begin to take account of the time taken in committees for line-by-line examination of bills, the eight proposed new pieces of legislation aired on Today would add almost 104 hours of debate, or more than four days of working, day and night. Were the legislative demands made on Today to be taken seriously, the programme would turn into a parliament-eating monster, with one week of broadcasting equalling almost one week of round-the-clock parliamentary time.
I don’t want to sound too heavy about this; I know that the research is slightly frivolous. I know, too, that pressure groups exist to apply pressure and opposition parties to oppose. And in a democracy, broadcasters are right to give them an airing. But is there just a little danger, perhaps, that all these unrealisable demands for new legislation increase the disillusion with politics? Many people are already all too willing to believe that governments do little or nothing. If every lobbyist seeking 15 seconds of soundbite fame gets free airtime, is there just a chance that our expectations of politicians rise while our belief in their power falls? Should we not ask ourselves how governments can keep to their manifesto commitments while also answering claims that, if they ignore Humphrys and friends, they are being aloof and unresponsive? Could our breakfast listening habits be a tiny bit to blame for our general disillusionment with politicians, which was so eloquently illustrated by the low turnout at the 2001 general election?
When the Social Market Foundation carried out a similar exercise in 1995, it found that, in one week, contributors to Today demanded an additional £14bn of public expenditure, equating to well over 8p on the basic rate of income tax. At that rate, basic income tax would have doubled in just three weeks, and it would have exceeded 100p in the pound within ten weeks.
Today, in other words, is a vehicle for a fantasy parliament that bankrupts Britain over breakfast. You hear ministers quarrelling with a particular proposal, but you rarely hear them saying, quite simply, that there are more important things to do. Governments have always needed to weigh up competing demands and make extremely selective decisions about which ones to pursue and which to disregard, however many people those decisions upset. Radio and television never reflect that reality, only an exasperation that governments don’t do more.
This is not to deny that the real parliament could do more to meet the demands of Today‘s fantasy parliament. It could revise and streamline its procedures to allow more legislation to be debated by its members. A legislation standing committee, chaired by the Speaker, could establish a calendar to allow minority parties and backbenchers more of a say in what gets debated and when. At present, there is no formal timetable for parliamentary business and the two major parties can dominate the programme by applying guillotine motions (in the case of the government) or by filibustering (in the case of the opposition). Either way, politicians look as if they are playing silly games, and the public ends up feeling cheated.
Paradoxically, parliament might be better respected if it legislated less rather than more. A more efficient system would filter out all but the most essential new legislation. The “pile ’em high and legislate fast” tendency has left us with the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991 and, thanks to a 1993 act, the Child Support Agency.
But is it too much to expect the media to change a little as well? John and Jim and co are rightly searching in their questioning of ministers, but they could also apply their formidable interviewing talents to challenge the demands being made by the cacophony of spokespeople that dominate our breakfast airwaves.
At present, everybody is treated as though their pet gripe could be funded or legislated away at will. Those who want to set the public policy agenda should be pressed to go beyond their pre-prepared soundbites and justify why their particular issue should go to the top of the legislative queue.
Today may be good listening over the breakfast coffee but, now and again, we should question whether it drives our politics in the right direction.