Earlier this year Involve responded to the ‘expenses crisis’ by highlighting the issues involved in reconnecting the public with their elected representatives. Having attended a Hansard Society Lecture on Monday given by John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, entitled ‘Parliament in an Anti-Politics Age – the Outreach Challenge‘; it appears that the UK Parliament is taking a number of steps to do just this.
So, what is Parliament’s role in today’s politically disengaged society? The Audit of Political Engagement 5 by the Hansard Society and the Electoral Commission, found that in 2008 less than a third of the public believe that ‘when people like me get involved in politics, they really can change the way that the country is run’. What is it that political institutions are doing about this seemingly increasing high level of apathy and lack of participation?
Bercow’s speech championed a reconnection between Parliament and Public through the increased development and institutionalisation of Parliamentary Outreach. He described the encouragement of a deeper level of engagement between the people and the House of Commons through an iterative process, a ‘continuous system of engagement which needs to be constantly refreshed and renewed’.
Bercow also stated that this process must be necessarily inclusive. Remarking on the increasing marginalisation within UK society, the Outreach strategy he proposed must succeed in reaching all minorities; including those pushed to the periphery as a result of social class, geographical location, and family status. The Scottish Parliament’s engagement programme is presently pushing this element of outreach by piloting a ‘Community Partnerships Project’ which is working with young people from a range of difficult to reach groups, to help them get involved with and influence the activities of the Parliament.
Whilst recognising the hard work and innovative work of the Parliamentary Outreach Service to this date, the take home message I gained from this discussion was that there is still more to be done to empower and engage the public in positive action through parliamentary processes. It was therefore especially encouraging to be presented with the ‘first Speaker’s Advisory Council on Public Engagement’, which he said will consist of external figures anticipating or responding to the needs of the public. The first step for the board will be to analyse current outreach activities, but then to provide advice about how the House of Commons is viewed and what should be done to restore the trust required between Parliament and the public.
For many, the central issue in all of this is trust; a form of trust that believes political institutions are working for the benefit of the public. This trust can, and will, stem from consistent and genuine communication with the public, but not just through this type of outreach. All levels of government must engage in a more meaningful way with the electorate in order to rebuild legitimacy in UK politics and political understanding.