James Max - James Max is a broadcaster, columnist and business expert

Don’t confuse the court of public opinion with democracy

Increasingly decisions are being taken on the basis of a groundswell of public opinion. Unless we realise what is happening and change our attitudes we are going to end up in a very dark place.

I am all for Twitter and Facebook and have thoroughly engaged with the social media revolution. Our politicians have devalued themselves because of the row over their pay and their personal conduct. As a result their comments and leadership has been undermined. No one outside of the Westminster “bubble” cares much for the arguments they have. There is very little engagement in the processes of democracy. It seems to take too long. Is too complex. Too driven by ego and as a result of lack of any experience outside politics often the decisions taken aren’t good.

If you have a look at how government is constructed, it’s not particularly democratic either. The selections process for MP’s, the party system and how it’s funded, the House of Lords, which has no elected element or accountability. Politicians more interested in their ego than of doing a good job often populate Select Committees. The scrutiny they provide is either partisan or flawed by their own lack of expertise. The machinations of government, operating through a faceless group of civil servants and quangos is both expensive and wasteful.

Even when democracy does work and someone is unseated from power they end up being parachuted into the House of Lords, sent to Europe to join the EU gravy train or end up on the consultancy and after dinner circuit earning vast sums.

Meanwhile, you are paying for this. Through an increasing tax burden which some seem to argue isn’t enough.

Personally I am delighted that Mr Goodwin is no longer a Sir. However that is a decision that should have taken place two years ago. Indeed there are many other people who no longer deserve the honours bestowed upon them. The court of public opinion hasn’t been goaded to kick up a stink, so the system continues to fail.

I am less pleased about the continued row over pay. There is absolutely no role for government in this arena. Other than to collect tax and encourage business to set up in this country and to assist our overall economic trajectory. This continued interference is unwelcome. However what we do need to do is have a democratic system that is both accountable and forward thinking. Whilst the court of public opinion has got itself worked up over Fred the Shred and his replacement’s pay, we haven’t tackled any of the problems that really affect us.

Politicians have allowed the court of public opinion to mix their banking metaphors. Investment banks make big profits and pay big bonuses. Retail banks tried to emulate them. There is a difference and the public facing retail banks have not had to change their dreadful approach to lending or their contemptible treatment of customers one jot. Meanwhile investment banks, which do a very different job, have been the focus. This is madness.

It’s still too expensive to borrow money. Retail banks have not been made to be answerable to their customers. Credit card companies are charging too much for their services. Layered charges and extra fees by various organisations remain in place. Complaints take too long and are often ineffective. Mortgages are hard to come by and again layered with fees. Rewards for failure are rife. However rewards for success are targeted. Have our politicians dealt with any of the issues that really affect people? No. It’s too difficult and so the simpler option of sticking plasters to cover gaping wounds continues.

Indeed it is the politicians and their tinkering that has led us to inflate pay at the top. Why? Disclosure requirements and a politically driven tax structure. The real issue for most people is that they have no knowledge of how their colleagues are paid. Processes are mired in secrecy. Since we have begun to open Pandora’s box, there’s an argument to say that there should be complete disclosure from top to bottom of all pay and remuneration to eradicate the scourge of discrimination and of large companies taking advantage of their workers.

The court of public opinion won’t often be right. Not because I don’t have faith in people but because it will inevitably pick on a quick solution rather than dealing with the cause. It will also pick up on wherever the light is being shone (often brightly by an unelected and motivated media organisations!) and it leaves many others unaffected. Unless we improve the quality of our political system and the processes by which they operate we will sink ever further into a society that takes its decisions based on jealousy, envy and hunches rather than being driven by hard work, reward and enterprise.

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