In this essay I argue that for lasting democratic renewal, this country urgently needs constitutional reform, empowered local politics and better quality politicians.
It is striking how many commentators argue that the “time for reform is now”, that there seems to be a “groundswell of support” or a “new consensus” forming. Sadly, as of late 2009, there doesn’t seem to be the reform at any level that these authors sense is imminent. Are reformists as a group fooling themselves? Or by making their proposals seem inevitable do they hope to garner more support?
In fact I think that they are correct. A great number of people, quite possibly a majority, feel deeply dissatisfied with how the UK is run. How its basic processes operate and the poor tangible results they deliver.
The NHS is fragmenting into Foundation Trusts regardless of local opinion. Schools are nailed to the national curriculum and obsessive testing. The Police are chasing the same drug users over and over again while lax licensing leaves communities dazed by alcoholic chaos.
It does seem like time for reform to me. But politics… our politicians… are just not responding effectively to the challenges, if at all. They make lots of noise about policies and initiatives. But they are designed for the media – so they, the politicians, are seen to be doing something.
There are honorable exceptions but I am afraid that the vast majority of politicians are dreadful. They fail to critically assess the issues or resulting legislation. They toe craven party lines, which again are crafted for the media first and foremost. They don’t seem to mind dodging questions or parroting massaged statistics on national television. These are not normal people. I wouldn’t make figures up when talking to my boss or friends. I doubt many of us would. If asked a question I would try to answer it honestly, not answer a different question altogether.
The media are a problem too… they make sport of politicians often putting them in impossible situations. Sometimes, like exposing the expenses debacle, they are effective in holding the politicians to account. But too often they are happy to recite lines fed to them by political operatives resulting in crescendos of scaremongering, disinformation and out-of-context ‘revelations’.
Perhaps this country has got the politicians it deserves. But I hope not… I think that it is more correct to say that politicians have somehow morphed into a separate class with their own priorities, values and way of operating. They have become disconnected from the greater population in a very unhelpful way. Try as they might, they can’t help but put their own interests ahead of others.
People bemoan professional politicians. I don’t entirely agree. I would love politicians to be professional in how their conducted politics. Wasn’t Churchill the consummate professional? I see politics as a process of negotiation between competing visions, needs and interests. It is difficult work, filled with tricky compromises and careful balancing acts. Too often it is portrayed as simple ideologies battling it out — but in reality there is never a simple ‘red overcomes blue’ victory. If our politicians were more explicit about this reality, more careful and much more honest I believe that would greatly help.
Why aren’t they? Because the culture of our politics is excessively tribal, focussed on defending the party and often far too petty. It seems extraordinary that so much time and energy could be spent on banning fox hunting yet despite many promises and reviews we still don’t have an elected upper house or a more proportional voting system for Westminster. We also have an absurd number of ministers soaking up MPs who should be busy as legislators, not managers. We are burdened with an unwritten constitution, notoriously unbalanced libel laws, an unhealthy obsession with maintaining our position in the world order (hence vast spending on the military) and a massively centralised government.
We also have a famously aggressive media pack which has forced government into launching incessant new initiatives often developed in the space of nothing more than a few days.
It is clear to me in my travels that countries with strong regional and local government tend to fare better. There is a stronger sense of ‘place’, there is more accountability and profile for local politicians and hence national government is not so burdened with details. Nowhere is perfect but we in the UK have spent too long being pleased with our past achievements. They are long gone. This is not a new trend…
In 1872 we were one of the last democracies to adopt the secret paper ballot, way after our colonies had done so. Having been an early adopter of democracy itself we then rested on our laurels, while others saw the opportunity for positive reform and took it. Still to this day our vote is not truly secret due to the serial number of every ballot. In every other serious democracy such a system is regarded as an abomination. Have we lost the knack of reform?
I think not. We have still managed to introduce some devolution, the Human Rights Act and the creation of a Supreme Court. These were all good things, though there are details we could argue need improving.
However I don’t believe any of these were seen as inherently threatening to the political class. Devolution, if anything, created more space for the political classes and initially at least, did not create any major political upsets either.
An elected upper house and proportional representation, for example, would smash open the current club quite dramatically. Without a House of Lords how would failed MPs stay in the gang or Prime Ministers stuff their cabinets? And proportional representation would abolish the notion of safe seats, utterly changing the logic of current British general election campaigning (and so media reporting). Changing the rules for political party finances would risk more new parties gaining ground. A written constitution would eliminate the wriggle room that allowed decisions like the second war on Iraq to squeeze through. These changes would create a political system and associated culture that would be significantly more accessible and accountable.
Let’s run through a quick list of reforms I think necessary:
- A written constitution;
- An elected upper house;
- Proportional Representation for all elections;
- Reformed party finance with capped donations and expenditure;
- Reduced number of Ministers;
- Possibly rooted in the new constitution, a major re-balancing of power and responsibilities between national government, agencies and local government.
This list resists all the policy changes I would love to implement from rewriting our tax system to nationalising the railways! These would be for our re-invigorated political system to debate. I don’t believe that the reforms I suggest would swing the political leanings of Westminster one way or the other. I don’t think that should be a factor in one’s deliberations on constitutional reform and in the end it doesn’t matter. As long as the reformed system is significantly more representative of people’s wishes then I am hopeful that outcomes will be improved.
I know some will probably call this hard to swallow because I am a “Green”. As an elected politician for the Green Party I am branded, stamped, tarred with the party political imprint. This is a symptom of the problem with British politics at the moment. Once someone “comes out” as being party political they are viewed with suspicion, their utterances are treated with caution and they are no longer “independent”. Our political culture needs renewal so we can get past such simplistic views.
Too much political discourse revolves around one party being bad and the other good. I personally consider party labels as flags of convenience for describing certain worldviews. It doesn’t mean everything from one or the other should be utterly discredited. When we cannot find common ground, let us heartily disagree. But to be so tribal makes agreement when there is common ground that much more difficult.
So what shape should politics and politicians take?
I hope for constitutional reform, I see that as the most likely catalyst for lasting change to our political culture. But as we may be waiting a long time we can still be mindful of Ghandi’s exhortation that we be the change we want to see in the world.
I believe a modern politician should first and foremost be true to themselves. By honestly reflecting their views and acting in accordance with them they are far less likely to hoodwink voters, toe party lines on difficult votes or mislead in interviews.
They need to be honest, hardworking and open to opposing views. They should be excellent communicators both in public and one to one.
In their defence, today’s politicians all suffer from incessant interruptions, excessive meetings and vast requests on their time whether emails, phone calls or invitations to events. Somehow politicians need to find the self confidence and strength to sail a path through this to calmer waters where they can reflect, consider and do much more quality legislative work.
Whilst accepting the electoral realities of re-election bids, being seen at hundreds of events and in thousands of press clippings should not be the main focus of our politicians. Nobody can think clearly when running all the time. We need to help them slow down if we want better quality thinking from them.
I do think being a politician is a full time job. It is if you want to do it properly. Legislating against second jobs seems overly restrictive though, let the voters decide on that. But while we expect our MPs, even the most backbench ones from small parties, to work full time… we seem to have a much lower opinion of our councillors.
Despite managing millions if not billions of assets (Brighton & Hove City Council’s assets are worth about £2 billion) councillors are expected to work only part time on their duties. Furthermore based on the time they are expected to work (which excludes residents meetings etc) the value is discounted by around a third because being a Councillor is a ‘public service’. So councillors end up with a small allowance — which is taxed like a salary — for managing the area they represent. Councillors in Oxford City get around £3k a year, Brighton & Hove around £11k and Birmingham £16k; and some say Birmingham is the largest local authority of its type in Europe.
54 councillors in Brighton & Hove are responsible for managing, monitoring, scrutinising the budget, policies and actions of a council which provides waste collection, social care, schooling, cultural services, roads, street lights… the list goes on. Yes the council leader, cabinet members and some others get additional allowances but the leader in Brighton & Hove gets £38k in total while the Chief Executive is on some £170k. Who is in charge there?
I’m not advocating £170k salaries… CEO pay needs reducing. But we’re trying to get our local government on the cheap – and it shows from the poor results we get. What if there were fewer councillors, about one per ward, earning around £30k each and the leader on something like £60k. Would that be outrageous? It would cost about the same as the current councillor pay bill. But we would then have councillors able to dedicate their whole time to supporting their local area and properly considering policies.
At the moment that isn’t possible because nobody has the time, so officers take the lead and councillors just mutter and nod at their reports.
If we were to rebalance the power between local and national government then reforming the role of councillors would become inevitable. It is only because local authorities are the poor relatives of government that the current situation has been allowed to persist. If, like in Sweden, local councils had lead responsibility for health or policing as they used to, then I doubt such weak democratic structures with part time representatives would be allowed to persist.
It is our current politicians who are responsible for our constitutional arrangements, the centralisation of government and the dire political culture. So, remembering the honorable exceptions I noted previously, I am led this conclusion about the future of British politics:
For a better politics we need better politicians. It’s a simple as that.