Published on November 11, 2009

Reform from without or within?

If anything, the recent expenses scandal has exposed how detached politicians are from the general public. This gulf is symbolic of our current political environment. In name, we have a system of representative democracy in which politicians respond to, within reason, the desires of their citizens. In reality there is a great schism between an insulated political elite and an increasingly alienated populace. Whilst the expenses scandal has exacerbated this division it is not its primary cause.

At the root of our divided polity lie numerous paradoxes, contradictions and flaws. The UK has a population of over 60 million people and yet it is represented by a mere 645 MPs. Our electoral system’s inherent bias towards two party politics looks archaic in juxtaposition to the multitude of different preferences our citizens hold. Party expenditure has increased dramatically, funded by a decreasing number of high paying donors, whilst membership has haemorrhaged and turnout has continued to fall.

To reverse these trends there has been a number of noble, yet insufficient proposals. Electoral reform is top of the list, with the Liberal Democratsthe GreensUnlock Democracy and the Electoral Reform Society all advocating a more plural elite politics. The Conservatives propose to reform party finance with a reduction in election expenditure and caps on donations . The Electoral Commission has been redrawing electoral boundaries to redress population imbalances between constituencies . The problem is all these focus on institutional tinkering rather than substantive reform.

For those active in promoting participation, whether in the UK or abroad, a novel solution is looking politicians in the face. If you want to have citizens’ buy-into the political system they need to have ownership of it. Whilst this would be assisted in part by a written Bill of Rights and a right to recall MP’s, a more radical approach needs to be taken. Citizens need to be involved in both reforming the system and running it.

To impose reforms from above may seem paternalistic and distrustful of citizens’ capacity to reason. Anyone who has facilitated lay deliberation will know ‘the great unwashed’ aren’t stupid. Involve’s recent World Wide Views on Climate Change report shows this. When provided with accurate information, time to reflect and an arena for debate – Joe Bloggs can come to a reasoned conclusion on a complex issue.

Considering this, it is telling that many of those proposing reform have negated to involve the general public in the process. Inevitably part of this is due to a lack of resources, be it time or money, for what are relatively small yet efficient campaigning organisations. For the main two parties the primary issue seems to be vested interests. Any outside engagement could potentially threaten their ability to manoeuvre in a cut-throat, Machiavellian environment.

Even if they put self-interest aside it is questionable how many people would want to engage with such disreputable bodies. Herein lies the problem for political ‘insiders’. No matter how hard they try to reach those outside Westminster, the chasm between them and their constituents is two large to be bridged alone. Charities and think-tanks can help undertake research to inform elite decision-making however this is unfortunately, an insufficient substitute. We need substantive participation on a mass scale to instigate any meaningful reform.

Currently Power2010 are attempting this by asking the general public for their ideas on political reform. Compass has run a similar campaign called how to live in the 21st century . These are a good start however they need to ensure contributors aren’t just the usual suspects.

Critics of this approach may attack it for being impossible to implement and too means-focussed. I would respond by saying increased participation is an end in itself. It enables people to collectively determine their lives, something noticeably absent from modern society. It can also act as an educative tool, helping participants learn about a new subject or giving them confidence to debate within the public realm.

As for its utopianism, there is nothing wrong with that. Admittedly it means that all attempts are destined to fall short of their desired goals. Nevertheless at least it’s pushing things in the right direction.

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