£53 and the Problem With UK Politics

by Ben Dodson CC-BY-NCThe current furore over the Work and Pensions Minister, Ian Duncan Smith, is highlighting not just the glibness of modern politicians when speaking to the media, but also that much of the media is focused on partisan bickering rather than on the reporting of news.

There are two main aspects to this story. The first is the promise made by Ian Duncan Smith, and the second is the response to it.

So let’s start with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Earlier this week he said he could live on £53 a week, in response to one man’s complaint of the Governments cuts. ‘If I had to I would’ he said on BBC Radio 4. This was swiftly followed by calls to put his money where his mouth is, or, perhaps more accurately, try to feed his mouth with the money he offers.

No-one forced, or compelled, Duncan Smith to make that statement. The assertion that it’s possible is one that rankles many people, however. Of course not everyone is feeling the pinch of recession and csuts, and that includes the former Conservative Party leader. While he may have been on unemployment benefits in the ’80s, he’s had steady employment for the last twenty years, all on public funds. Now asking him to try living on the same solutions he’s proposing for others isn’t really that big a stretch. In fact, given his experiences being a ward of the welfare state, and his military service, it shouldn’t be that difficult for him to survive, adapt, and overcome.

However, the speed with which he’s back-pedalled and tried to move away from his initial position shows how promises trip lightly off the tongue when you’re a politician defending your party base. It’s ‘a stunt’ he claimed, ignoring the simple fact that after 20+ years as an MP, one currently earning significantly more (£134,565/year) than the average wage (£28,700 for UK males, according to the BBC in November) he may be a bit out of touch, and a bit clueless about the realities of his policies. Sure it looks good on paper, but without experiencing it first-hand, he’s not going to understand why it doesn’t work. At the time of writing, over 400,000 people have already said they’d like him to re-acquaint himself with that area of his job, to help him perform better.

Yet the area he does understand, that ‘of the wealthy’, will be getting a tax cut, effectively boosting their income. Clearly it’s hard when you’re driving from your Buckinghamshire mansion to your London office, in your expensive car, and having the taxpayer pick up the bill on expenses. It helps you get to the end of the week with enough money left to keep the Jacuzzi warm and the Champagne cold while the maid washes your clothes.

Now, if the inability of Duncan Smith to stand behind his own statements and live by his own policies was expected, the media reaction was disgustingly depressing. While some have decided to try and report facts and keep the opinion to a minimum, other ‘news’ media outlets have made it a partisan issue.

Express columnist Leo McKinstry has called it a ‘Frenzied assault‘, characterising it as an attack by the left ‘to win their battles by denigration rather than debate’. Of course, as a columnist, he has some latitude in his opinion, but rather than discuss facts or understand the message, he believes it’s another political attack, ignoring the enormous undercurrent of feeling behind it.<

The Telegraph has no such excuse however. On Tuesday morning, it ran a news story saying that David Bennett, the man who prompted this whole mess by challenging Duncan Smith to live under his new plans, has played poker. Somehow the issue of ‘is your plan actually feasible, and will you prove it by living it’ was turned around by the paper into ‘this is what I do, can you?’. It also felt that since Bennett did gamble somewhat (an action perfectly legal under UK law) he somehow had no right to criticise members of the government, or address someone responsible for ensuring that the poorest in society have enough to live on.

‘Mr Bennett’s gambling history has thrown up questions about whether the BBC should have given him such a ‘high-profile platform.’ wrote Melanie Hall in the Telegraph. Yes indeed, because we all know that only people who are absolute saints should have high-profile platforms, like the News of the World.

A day later, it gleefully reported that Conservative MPs had complained about the Radio 4 interview, citing Mr Bennett’s personal circumstances. What gets missed though is that Ian Duncan Smith was asked a direct question, and gave a direct answer. His answer of ‘yes he could live on £53/week if he had to’ does not depend on Mr Bennett’s situation at all. It’s an attempt to spin an issue by changing the subject.

The partisan nature of the newspaper world is well known (‘It’s The Sun Wot Won It‘ springs to mind) but now it’s getting out of control. The media is supposed to report on the news, not campaign for one party or another. It shouldn’t defend, or attack but should strive for the truth, at least in its news reporting. By all means, have editorial and opinion sections, but be clear labelling it as such.

Right now, it seems that we live in a world where “a lie can be around the world before the truth has got its boots on” – but in a world with a more rigid focus on the facts and journalistic integrity, politicians could not so easily make promises they have no intention of keeping because they know that the press would keep them honest. Such a world would also make the job of honest people, those who deal with truths and honesty, like the Pirate Party, easier too; most importantly it would help detoxify politics, political discussion and might just spur greater participation in the democratic process.

This piece was originally published on the Pirate Party UK Blog