And the award for best punditry goes to...

'I wager that the people who appear on the panel of Any Questions? don't listen to Any Answers?'
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The Independent Online

Have you noticed that our political commentators have the gift of believing two quite contradictory things at the same time? And that none of them seems to have noticed it?

Have you noticed that our political commentators have the gift of believing two quite contradictory things at the same time? And that none of them seems to have noticed it?

Yes, have you spotted that all those political columnists who regularly get nominated Columnist Of The Year or get invited to spout views on radio and TV are actually facing in two opposite directions all the time, thus storing up terrible muscle strain for their old age?

Let me explain.

We are constantly being told by the pundits that Parliament is being sidelined by the Government. Important decisions are not made by MPs. Important decisions are not even announced to MPs, but are given straight to the press by ministers and spokesmen. Important decisions are being made by non-elected quangos, stuffed with government yes-men. Important decisions are being made in Brussels and swallowed wholesale by our own government departments. Indeed, very important decisions are increasingly being made by global corporations which bypass our democratic institutions entirely....

The implication is that Parliament is getting ever more irrelevant, and that any MPs foolish enough to turn up for a session in the Commons are not going where the action is. That, if you believe the pundits, is the truth.

At the same time we are constantly being fed by the same pundits with speculation about the date of the next election, about infighting in both main parties over whether it should be 3 May or later, about why Blair is sticking so faithfully to his guns on 3 May, about whether Hague should go for a postponement or not, about....

But you get the picture. Have you spotted the contradiction? Here it is:

All pundits agree Parliament is increasingly irrelevant to what happens in the world, that even our own Government pays little attention to what happens in the House of Commons. (If he were not contractually obliged to turn up for Prime Minister's Question Time, Tony Blair would probably never visit the place.) At the same time, all pundits agree the timing of the next general election is the most important thing facing the country. In other words, being an MP is a waste of time but that being elected an MP is vitally important.

It is almost as if parliamentary elections are seen by the pundits to be more important than parliamentary business, and that what happens on the hustings is more important than what happens in Westminster.

How can this be? How can apparently intelligent men and women wrangle endlessly over an election date while believing the results of the election on that date are unimportant and predictable?

My theory to explain these unreconcilables is that general elections are not really seen as elections any more, but as a highly organised opinion poll. Everyone is agreed that an election will not lead to a great deal of change, not even if one party is ejected and another inserted. What it will do is reflect more accurately than even Mori can do the feelings of the country at a given point about the way things are going. A general election is a chance for the country to have its own soundbite. It makes sense, in a way. We are increasingly being invited to register our vote on other things, to phone YES or NO to football team selections, to vote on the Greatest Song Of The Century, to vote for someone to be ejected from a TV programme, to phone in our opinion to Jonathan Dimbleby, until we probably feel that in some way our opinion makes a difference.

It doesn't, of course - I wager that the people who appear on the panel of Any Questions? don't listen to Any Answers? - but it makes us feel as if our opinion matters and that somebody somewhere cares. That opinions matter more than events. The general election has become another such exercise in public massaging, making us feel that we really count. Yet the odd thing is that the public doesn't really respect decisions by the public. What the public really likes is decisions taken in secret by a small group of self-elected experts. The Booker prize, perhaps. No, much better - the Oscars! There is absolutely nothing democratic about the way the Oscars are selected, yet we genuflect to the decisions reached unaccountably by a small group of invisible insiders, even though our opinions have never been consulted.

Which brings us back to Tony Blair and his merry men.

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