Posts Tagged ‘Party politics and elections’

Democratising Hansard: continuing to improve the accessibility of parliamentary records

The official, substantially verbatim report of what is said in Parliament is an essential tool for ensuring democratic accountability. This record, Hansard, contains a wealth of data, but it is not always fully accessible and easy to search. Lesley Jeffries and Fransina de Jager explain how a new project, Hansard at Huddersfield, aims to improve access to the Hansard records and contribute new ways of searching the data.

A correctly functioning representative democracy, where the people are the ultimate source of political power, requires openness from Parliament and active participation from the public. To hold their leaders accountable, the public needs to know what is being said and done in parliamentary debate. Such transparency can be achieved through the societal watchdog, journalism. From the early 1800s onwards, newspapers devoted full pages to parliamentary reports, and in the early days, parliamentary records, known as Hansard, were sourced from these newspaper accounts. In the early 20th century Hansard was brought into parliament itself with the remit of producing comprehensive and unbiased records of what is said in the Palace of Westminster. In the early 1990s, when Parliament allowed live broadcasts of debates, newspapers largely discontinued their direct parliamentary report, but Hansard continued its work of recording all official business in both houses of Parliament. This priceless resource has the capacity to be searched electronically more easily than video data, and has been available online since 1997, with a new integrated website (hansard.parliament.uk) launched in 2018.

Hansard as a democratic resource

Despite the very many ways in which citizens can now access parliamentary debate directly (via television, Youtube, SoundCloud, social media and so on), Hansard still provides the most comprehensive and democratic access to the language of government and Parliament. Edited only for repetitions and obvious mistakes, and without altering the meaning of what was said, Hansard reports full parliamentary debates, parliamentary decisions and votes for both houses of Parliament. Because Hansard has records of parliamentary debates since 1803, the public can use it to keep up with the progress of politics as well as learning about ways in which Parliament has dealt with societal issues over time. Audio-visual recordings of parliamentary debate do not go as far back nor provide for easy searching.

Is it really democratic?

Theoretically, Hansard should thus be democratically accessible to all citizens. In the past, the printed version of Hansard had to be paid for. Hansard first became available online for free in 1997 when parliament launched its website. Since then the online version of Hansard has evolved in its efforts to make Hansard available to everyone and keep up with the technological developments. The Hansard Story, a short history of Hansard, puts it like this: ‘[Hansard] responds to democratic need, offering a service that spans past and present, with a watchful eye on the future,’ (p.51).

In 2018, Hansard launched a website that combined Historic Hansard (1803–2005) with the contemporary record. Nevertheless, the basic search functions of the site remain linked to the structure of Hansard’s data, so that while searching for particular debates or people may be easy, searching for a topic over a period of time, for example, or even searching by the party membership of speakers, is tricky.

How Hansard at Huddersfield can improve democratic access

Our project, Hansard at Huddersfield, based at the University at Huddersfield, uses new ways of searching and presenting data, influenced by methods in corpus linguistics, in order to stimulate interest in, and use of, the Hansard records. The aim is to create a website that responds to what the public wants to know, and which eases the search process to help people find features and patterns of parliamentary speech that may inform their professional or personal concerns. With a team of linguists and computer scientists on board, the project has simplified linguistic methods for searching large datasets to create an easily searchable website that provides clearly visualised results from complex searches.

In order to make the website more democratic (within our time and means), Hansard at Huddersfield has collaborated with potential users of the site to identify their areas of interest in exploring Hansard. We discovered that their main interest in searching Hansard was to find key themes and patterns in debates over a certain period of time and if possible to be in a position to compare their findings across parties, timescales and other parameters. To help them interpret their findings, they wanted contextual information such as who spoke, or which party they belong to.

Although there is a range of software available to search large datasets to answer such questions, for non-expert users this software demands too much knowledge of linguistics and statistics to warrant easy interpretation of the findings. By simplifying these methods, however, we hope that end-users without such specialised knowledge will be able to access the data in previously unavailable ways, and be able to explore the data in a range of intuitive methods. Hansard at Huddersfield introduces interactive diagrammatic representations to visualise the findings. Whilst these visualisations are both attractive and informative, we have also made certain that the user can always access the original Hansard entries to ensure that there is complete transparency in the use of the data.

As an example, on our site you can explore the Hansard data without a pre-determined search term, such as through a word cloud (see Figure 1). From this, you can select a few words to see their frequency distribution over time (Figure 2), and a list of all the contributions that feature the selected words in that time period. From this list you can select single contributions that can be explored separately.

Figure 1: Word cloud from Hansard at Huddersfield

Figure 2: Frequency distribution of two words in Hansard over time

While the Hansard at Huddersfield website presents more ways to explore Hansard, it is still not close to being maximally accessible to everyone or relevant for all possible research needs. The one-year time period of the project meant there were limits to its ambition, but we aim to continue developing the site for another nine months. We hope that its main achievement will be to inspire users of Hansard to explore this incredibly rich resource in new and imaginative ways and to encourage the public to engage with Hansard directly, unmediated by journalism. Hansard at Huddersfield aspires to influence the way that the voting public uses Hansard in their role of keeping government accountable. If so, we dare to hope that our new interface for this valuable data will, in some modest way, enhance the public’s engagement with democracy.

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Note: The above was first published on Democratic Audit. Hansard in Huddersfield is funded by the AHRC (AH/R007136/1). Image credit: UK Parliament, via Parliamentary Copyright.

About the Authors

Lesley Jeffries is Professor of English Language at the University of Huddersfield and Principal Investigator on the Hansard at Huddersfield project.

 

 

Fransina de Jager is a PhD student in Linguistics at the University of Huddersfield and research assistant on the Hansard at Huddersfield project.

 

 

 

Breaking the mould: British social democrats need an improved method for doing politics

Social democratic politics in Britain requires compelling answers to three questions that Roy Jenkins posed in 1979, writes Patrick Diamond. He revisits Jenkins’s words by considering the prospects for ‘breaking the mould’ of UK politics in the time of Brexit and permanent austerity.

The year 2019 marks the fortieth anniversary of Roy Jenkins’ Dimbleby lecture, Home Thoughts from Abroad, which led indirectly to the formation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a major event in British political history that threatened to destroy the Labour party. Social democratic politics still requires compelling answers to three of the central questions that Jenkins then posed. Firstly, how to reform the British system of democracy to develop a culture of political participation and pluralism that leads to more equitable economic and social policies. Secondly, how to unite the centre-left parties to forestall long periods of Tory dominance in electoral politics, avoiding ‘blunders’ such as the 2016 referendum on EU membership. And, thirdly, how to cultivate an intellectual ecosystem on the progressive Left that generates radical ideas for social reform. It is all too obvious that liberal social democrats need a governing agenda and political strategy for the ‘new hard times’ of Brexit and ‘permanent austerity’.

Those who have identified with the British social democratic tradition have found themselves in ignominious retreat over the last decade. The conventional centre-left vision has at times amounted to little more than kneejerk repudiation of Brexit. There has been an astonishing reluctance to engage in serious thinking about the long-term consequences of the worldwide financial crisis. Moreover, little thought has been given to what is a viable national strategy for the UK in the aftermath of departure from the EU. Fundamental questions remain unanswered. What is the social democratic view of a fair capitalism, an effective state, a good society? Through what strategy should the centre-left address Britain’s broken system of democracy that produces outcomes so disillusioning for so many citizens? Social democrats need to cease justifying the status quo, becoming a radical movement of ideas again. The newly formed Independent Group of MPs now face exactly that challenge, as do those in the Labour party who still subscribe to the broad tradition of social democracy.

Labour has made strides in its thinking about the British economy in recent years. Yet the party’s ideas continue to be shaped by a nostalgic worldview centred on the revival of heavy industry, accompanied by a return to collectivist modes of trade union organisation. By emphasising a return to the orthodoxies of public ownership and state planning, Labour is attempting to revive the corporatism of the 1960s and 1970s. The social democratic vision of the economy should recognise the centrality of local communities, households and natural resource scarcity to future growth and well-being. Economies will be increasingly decentralised, shaped by a diversity of co-operatives, social enterprises and small businesses linked together through ‘anchor’ institutions. The centre-left has to address the digital and collaborative economy spanning global production, households, and local economies rather than retreating to the statist orthodoxies of the past.

Equally, the centre-left’s politics of redistribution is ripe for rethinking. On tax and public spending, the Labour leadership has been paralysed by ambiguity and indecision. The 2017 manifesto makes clear the party aims to tax the rich more aggressively. Yet we know little about what proportion of national income Labour believes is necessary to fund public services. Since Corbyn became leader, there has been little effort to develop an argument that high-quality schools and a well-funded NHS require all those of working age to pay more in tax, potentially through a reformed National Insurance system.

The elephant in the room of UK state spending is the sheer scale of resources consumed by the NHS: by 2023, according to Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), health spending will amount to 38% of national income. In relation to fiscal redistribution, Labour’s 2017 plans were judged by the IFS to be less progressive than those of the Liberal Democrats. The party’s thinking on welfare and poverty has not moved far since it lost office in 2010. Yet wealth inequalities have soared. Social democrats must develop programmes that strengthen the link between citizens and taxes; they have to devise imaginative schemes to effectively tax wealth, inheritance, capital gains and property; they need a strategy that declares a generational war on child poverty.

However, little progress will be made in addressing the politics of production and distribution without fundamental reform of British institutions and the state. In the Dimbleby lecture, Jenkins claimed it was time to ‘break the mould’ of British politics. Forty years later, it is clear that mould has begun to fracture. There has been a further weakening of traditional voter loyalties. UK territorial politics is in flux. The relationship between representative and direct democracy is under strain in the aftermath of the EU referendum. The electoral system no longer fits the transformed political landscape of Britain.

Yet a new politics is not just about reform of electoral systems, as Jenkins assumed in the late 1970s. Politicians of all ideological complexions are increasingly viewed as remote and professionalised. Ministers are grappling with complex problems which make them increasingly dependent on experts. The political class suffered a catastrophic loss of trust and disconnection due to its track-record of apparent incompetence. Bureaucracies are perceived as ever more remote and distant from citizens. The challenge for social democrats, whether in the Labour party or outside it will be to rediscover, as Jenkins foresaw, an improved method for doing politics that addresses the needs of a diverse and complex society.

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Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in The Political Quarterly.

About the Author

Patrick Diamond is Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London.

 

 

 

 

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay/Public Domain.

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