Don’t worry. Emergency over. We know how to restore our democracy. Constitutional change is what we need. Alan Johnson’s favoured constitutional fix is proportional representation, Nick Clegg wants fixed electoral terms and David Cameron wants more ‘independently minded’ Tory MPs. Each of these propositions, whilst important, will not cure the sickness that has infected our politics. Johnson, Clegg and Cameron need to go back to their notes. Each has called for either a ‘political revolution’ or ‘root and branch reform’ in this they are right but their initial proposals fall far short of their revolutionary posturing.
Three years ago I edited a pamphlet entitled ‘Post Party Politics’, at the time I genuinely believed that politics as currently configured was not up to the job of governing and meeting the challenges of the twenty first century. In particular I felt that the political parties bred a type of politics which excluded the vast majority of people and ducked the big issues, like climate change, social cohesion and global poverty that we face.
Since then I have become more aware of the need for effective government and the roles parties can play in that, but more critically I have been struck by the malaise that infects the system as a whole. And the expenses crisis has made me even more convinced by this position.
I exist on the fringes of Westminster. Meeting MPs from time to time, going into Parliament a few times a year for meetings. Probably overly on the fringes for someone whose work is democratic reform. Despite being on the fringes I have for some years been aware of the second homes deal for MPs, and that concerns existed around abuse of the system. I wasn’t aware of the details of flipping and the like although none of it seems to me surprising.
What is surprising however is how surprised so many people seem to have been. Including those whose job it is to know parliament and how it works.
I was at a Westminster conference on the Tuesday after the Telegraph broke the story. At the event I spoke to a number of experienced Westminster campaigners and lobbyists who waxed lyrical on how ‘outrageous’ it all was and how ‘shocked’ they were at the revelations. Were they really shocked? Did I have some rare insight that these hardened Westminster men did not? Last week I was listening to Radio 4, and the interviewer berated the apparently innocent MP for being complicit in the crisis not for fiddling their books, they hadn’t, but for failing to blow the whistle on their colleagues. It felt incredibly rich coming from a BBC journalist whose job it is to investigate such issues.
The truth is that the journalists and the lobbyists probably did have a fair idea of what was going on and probably like me just accepted it as how things are, and have always been. This just demonstrates how intertwined our government, media and campaigners are. In reality they depend on one another and exist in the same small patch of central London.
Westminster is an intoxicating place with fabulous architecture, a genuine sense of history and power, the regular appearance of celebrities and based in a truly world city. Many of those who operate in Westminster quickly succumb to its charms. Be it the journalist, the MP or campaigner. I know I did.
The problem is, in my opinion, the reform we need now can not come from within. Very rarely does genuine revolution or significant change come from the existing status quo. When I was a parliamentary lobbyist ten years ago it became clear to me that Westminster was not a hotbed of innovation and social change. It simply was not set-up to do that. And the problem is that is what we now need.
The calls for constitutional change we are now hearing are a classic insiders solution to political malaise. And of course constitutional change will be part of the answer, but it should not be our starting point. Firstly we must agree on a question. What kind of democracy do we want? I propose the following starter for ten. We need a democracy which:
- Can effectively meet the challenges of the twentieth century (climate change, community breakdown, an aging society, the financial crisis)
- Is meaningfully connected into all of our communities
- Has the trust and respect of all in society
- Breeds a parliamentary class that reflects society as a whole
- Can innovate and adapt to changing priorities.
If this is the case then it is inadequate to simply consider the role of MPs in isolation. We must consider them as part of a system. A system which involves political parties, parliament, the media, civil society as well as other parts of government. We must scrutinise all these elements and ask do we have the media we want? What is the state of civil society today? and how ought we to design political parties that are conceived for modern communities not outdated ideologies?
Constitutional change is an inevitable consequence of these discussions but it should under no circumstances be the start.
Head of International