We are just under six months away from a referendum on whether or not to fundamentally change the way we elect MPs to Westminster, but the public have virtually no understanding of what is being proposed. In research carried out by the Electoral Commission, people thought that the “Alternative Vote” might be something to do with voting by text or online, or was maybe a way of making sure that there were not queues outside polling stations again. Some even thought it was a way of making sure we don’t get a hung parliament in future. They would end up pretty disappointed if they voted “yes” on that basis.
So what can be done to educate and inform people about the choice they will soon be asked to make? I think that next year’s referendum provides a fantastic opportunity to experiment with a complete overhaul of the rules that currently apply to our system of Party Political Broadcasts.
It is fashionable among political activists to deride Political Broadcasts and claim that no one watches them anyway and that the internet has now taken over. This is not borne out by the evidence. Research by Ofcom after the 2005 election showed that Party Election Broadcasts were a very important source of information for voters, second only to the broadcast news bulletins and ahead of both national newspapers and local radio. Of course, politically active people can’t bear them and turn over because they have closed minds. But genuine floating voters who only really engage with politics at election time value them. Could we make them more effective?
When I was Head of Press at the Conservative Party, I used to go along to the meetings of the Broadcast Liaison Group, a committee made up of a mixture of executives from our main broadcasters, to discuss political broadcasts. There was a ritual predictability to the discussions. The Scottish and Welsh Nationalists would always argue that they were not getting enough time. The broadcasters would all moan that the main parties were far too late submitting their broadcasts and the main parties would complain about the lack of flexibility.
The current format allows parties to choose broadcasts ranging from two minutes 40 seconds to four minutes 40 seconds and the main parties basically get three each. I once suggested that they allow far more frequent broadcasts on a much shorter format of 45 seconds or one minute. That would mean that parties had more opportunity to get their message heard, there was a greater chance people would see the broadcasts, and also a greater chance they would stay tuned until the end of them. There was a sucking on teeth moment as it was explained that we don’t want to end up with vulgar political advertising like we see in the US.
I think it’s time to challenge this notion. Why is it OK to advertise toys to six year old children at 6.30 am between cartoons while their unsuspecting parents are trying to get a final hour of sleep, but advertising political ideas to over-18s is out of bounds? And what is wrong with shorter broadcasts? A typical news bulletin expects a politician to explain what they think in no more than a 12-15 second soundbite so having 45 seconds would be a complete luxury.
One of the things that frustrated me as Press Secretary to David Cameron was that, while the news bulletins only ever had time for a couple of short clips from an interview, they always managed to find plenty of time for the “two-way” with the Political Correspondent at the end where they explained “what David Cameron was really trying to achieve.” This could range from appealing to the youth vote, women voters, former Labour voters or core supporters. But it was almost always about process. Rarely are politicians given credit for having said what they actually believe in even though, in the main, they do. That is why we need to create more opportunities for politicians to communicate directly with voters in their own terms.
Having more frequent but much shorter political broadcasts would be good for our democracy and the comparison with the US is a false one. I think one of the greatest strengths of the British media is the credibility of our broadcasters and their news bulletins. I don’t agree with those Conservatives who would break up the BBC or allow partisan broadcasting like Fox News in the US. The system we have in the UK is far superior to that in America. But when it comes to political broadcasting, we could do much better.
The real objection to US-style advertising is not the length of the adverts but the fact that money buys airtime and therefore power. Having shorter but more frequent Political Broadcasts which are available to all participants would be consistent with the British tradition of a level playing field when it comes to access to the broadcast medium but with the advantage of a much higher audience.
And where better to test this idea than the referendum next year where people are currently completely in the dark but where there are only two sides in the argument? Give the “yes” and “no” campaigns 15 broadcasts of 45 seconds a piece in the final month of the campaign on prime time television, and may the best side win!