Friday, 11 May 2007

Nice but hopeless, Simon Jenkins should call it a day

This lamentable commentator cannot even master the electoral system to which he has hitched his comments. Surely it's time to fold up his tent.
What is Simon Jenkins for? He is the flotsam of 20th-century journalism drifting on into the 21st, coagulated from ancient clubs, cabals, splits and defections from other newspapers. Not since the 20th century has he cohered round any great interest. He represents no mass movement, no breaking of the political mould. Ask Simon Jenkins what he is for and you get only a susurration of platitudes. Yet thanks to the newspaper industry this commentator gets to influence the ruling classes. It is Grima for a day.
Westminster commentators have always given each other a free pass, as over cash for articles, because they are both hopeless and nice. Most commentators that have been writing for what feels like a century and are a political subsidiary of the two-party system would stop writing. But Britain's patronage media industry keeps Simon Jenkins going, that and the hope that his one distinctive policy, getting his column into print, might give him blocking power at his newspaper.
Simon Jenkins claims a bizarre interpretation of democracy, that the share of votes should not be reflected in a share in power. This confuses quite different concepts: executive government and assembly representation. The first requires a coherent team, a declared programme and some mechanism to account for its delivery to the electorate. They are checked by a second concept, that of a separately elected assembly, in which PR is both fair and just.
Forcing executive power to be shared with political rivals in a coalition makes it diluted, more representative and accountable. Indeed, the purer the proportionality the more representative it tends to be, as in Israel. (This is not necessarily a pretty sight, but that is down to the opinions of the electorate, not the system!) First past the post rarely engenders harmony. The invocation of "history" to hallow yesterday's fourth attempt at power sharing in Northern Ireland was prudent. It could last. It defuses opposition and favours consensus. The new Stormont regime, its mouth stuffed with money, could withstand a real delegation of political and fiscal power. Such coalitions seem to work when, as with the governance of Switzerland, there is genuine devolution of power.
It is a relief that in Scotland and Wales the executive is chosen from the parliament, as at Westminster, but from one composed by PR, thus virtually ensuring rolling coalitions. This was instead of the London option of a separate executive and assembly. Scotland and Wales should not have had directly elected first ministers, with proportionately elected assemblies to check them. This would not have met the requirement for fair representation in Edinburgh and Cardiff except for proportional representation in the balancing parliament/assembly.
Instead we have commentators flying about like £10 notes thrown into the wind. They carry no content, no programme, no sense of direction. They merely confer on the holder a false sense of having a valuable contribution to make to the political debate.
There is no perfect form of journalism. But since power without responsibility is its besetting sin, a journalism that empowers a thoughtful commentator subject to an external check – an Internet that permits separately empowered expression of different but as valid points of view - is preferable to one that internalises that check within the newspaper industry, where it is vulnerable to the whim of editors with an axe to grind.
The commentators are proving that they cannot work a system to which they have hitched their wagon for half a century. There is much talk that the next general election may yield a quirk rare under the first-past-the-post system of a hung parliament, with the Lib Dems again as king-makers. On the basis of 1977, 1997 and now 2007, it will mean not elective dictatorship but democracy. It is surely time for Simon Jenkins to fold his tent and go.

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