Andreas Whittam Smith: Mission to change politics starts now

 

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The Independent Online

Fact One. Respect for our democratic arrangements is in sharp decline. We no longer vote at general elections in the numbers that we used to do. We trust members of Parliament and the governments they form less and less. Despair with the system was vividly expressed by the protesters camped outside St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

Fact Two. These politicians whom we criticise weren't parachuted into Westminster from another planet. We voted for them. Once they were like us. Now they have morphed into a political class. But they do not rule by divine right. We could change them. The next election is due to take place on 7 May 2015.

The answer to our predicament is not to turn away from Parliament but to strengthen it. Parliament is as old as the nation. It grew out of the great national assemblies that emerged in early 10th century Britain. It is part of our genetic inheritance. It is one of the things that make us the country we are. And because we do not have a written constitution, the British Parliament is unusually powerful compared with legislatures elsewhere in the world. It could, for instance, repeal the acts that ceded certain responsibilities to European institutions.

Moreover all the power that we citizens actually have at our disposal is in the Palace of Westminster. So that is where people who want to change things have to direct their attention. Or, more precisely, those who want to change things have to secure the election of candidates to the House of Commons who represent their views. And they have to do so on a scale that counts. The election of a few stray independent members would achieve little.

What is here being described is an exceedingly challenging task that takes us into the realm of the near impossible. But in politics, the near impossible can happen. Perhaps the near impossible is more frequent now. Barack Obama became President. Rev Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness became colleagues in Northern Ireland. We acquired a coalition government. Unelected technocrats are now the prime ministers of Greece and Italy.

The problem is that the entrance to the House of Commons is narrow and access difficult. The established political parties largely control elections. This is how parliamentary democracies work. It is their default mode. And in a first-past-the-post electoral system, the old parties operate with deadly efficiency. Their system is effective. It might, however, be worked around.

Let us consider how this could be done and then what would be the essential preparatory work. Suppose a large group of like-minded citizens could be persuaded to stand for Parliament for one term only. They would have been pursuing demanding careers, such as being the head of a large school or running a charity or getting a new business under way or directing a trades union. They would have done something with their lives.

Their qualifications would be different from those of the current membership of the House of Commons. When politicians reach the top, their "skill set" is limited to marketing themselves and their parties to the electorate. Many of them are brilliant people, but there is not much else they have experience of doing. Some 90 members of the present parliament, for instance, have spent their entire working lives in politics, often starting off in their party research departments. And if you then add in occupations that, while filled with brilliant practitioners, do not generally involve significant management responsibilities such as the law, medicine, teaching and journalism, you have accounted for half the House of Commons. Yet these people have a government to run, or hope to do so in the future.

However, when non-politicians who have run things whether for profit or not-for-profit reach the top, they will have become competent in a range of solid activities, things you have to be able to do whether you are running, say, a business or a charity – creating new services and products, financial planning, harnessing of technology and managing substantial numbers of employees. As a result, they are much better equipped for the tasks of government than the average politician.

There would be another difference. Professional politicians have but one object in mind, winning the next general election. They are engaged in non-stop electioneering from the morning following victory or defeat at the polls until the next general election. They feel that they must do whatever it takes to stay in office or regain it. The new members, the one-term only cohort would be mercifully free of these distorting pressures.

Their task, assuming they were returned in sufficiently large numbers, would be single-mindedly to put right as many things as possible that governments formed by the traditional parties had failed to resolve. Then these temporary MPs would stand down when their single term was finished. As a consequence, they would have had to so frame their mission that it could be completed in five years. That would have been one of their promises to the electorate and part of their attraction. They would not be politicians but they would have been elected in the classic manner. Their democratic legitimacy would be at least equal to that of the present members of the House of Commons.

However, without making the enormous and unprecedented effort to create a new, national vote-winning organisation, not a single new-style candidate is going to be elected, let alone a sufficient number to participate in the government of the country. And that is precisely why the moment to start is now, with still nearly three years available for preparation. But where to begin?

What is first required is participative policy making, lasting a year, and using the digital media to ensure openness and legitimacy. The purpose would be to discuss and decide what the next government should do – in detail, with expert advice, complete in itself, not neglecting constitutional reform, working in groups, capable of being boiled down into a series of measures that the electorate would find attractive. This would not be so difficult as it sounds. Ideological differences are small these days, even between the established parties, which often magnify what are in effect small distinctions to make themselves stand out. The exercise would be unusual only in the sense that no difficult subjects would be avoided, everything would be upfront and open, no surprises, no hidden agenda.

Then, as this work progressed, and more and more individuals with contributions to make were drawn into it, and news of what was being undertaken began to spread, it is likely that people would emerge who were so committed to what was being proposed that they would stand for Parliament to try to carry through the programme. They would see it as a worthwhile public duty, not a career. But unless a start is made now, we shall never get to that point.

For further information on how to take part, visit independent.co.uk/democracy2015

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