How you can bring our ailing democracy back to life
Yesterday, Andreas Whittam Smith, founder of The Independent, announced a bold plan for a new political movement to restore British democracy. Here he unveils an initial manifesto for Democracy 2015 – and explains how you can get involved
Andreas Whittam Smith
Andreas Whittam Smith was a financial journalist until 1985 when he led the team that founded The Independent. The paper’s first editor (1986-1994), he has subsequently been the president of the British Board of Film Classification (1998-2002) and chairman of the Financial Ombudsman Service (1998-2003). He is currently First Church Estates Commissioner responsible for £5bn of the Church's investments, and chairman of the Children's Mutual.
Wednesday 05 September 2012
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: the politicians 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 being described here 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. The 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 trade union. They would have done something with their lives, and have established themselves in their communities.
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 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 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, 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.
If ordinary people are to reclaim politics from the party elites, ordinary people need to take action. This is how they – and you – can do so...
If you would like to be involoved in our project and participate in developing these ideas, please email the team at firstname.lastname@example.org
From your message, we would be grateful to learn:
a. The town or village where you live and the name of your parliamentary constituency. That will help us to plan events and meetings.
b. What you consider to be the government policies that most need redoing. That would help set the agenda for the writing of a manifesto.
c. How you would like to help. That could be either in thinking through issues or in helping to organise the process. The two tasks are equally daunting, and there is much to be done for each – for instance, in chairing meetings, setting up groups, taking notes, contacting and recruiting experts.
d. Whether you would support the principle of making a small contribution from time to time to keep the work going, a maximum of £50.
Our objective is to obtain a majority in the next House of Commons. The members so elected would declare that they intended to serve only one term. While I have described this target in The Independent as "near impossible", as indeed it is, I cannot see the point of aiming at anything less if the intention is to make a difference. The ideas below are correspondingly bold.
What next? It is easy to point to the failures of the existing system, but what would success look like? Our aspiration is that by the next general election, we will have achieved the following:
1. A group of candidates would have announced easy-to-understand policies for the problems people worry most about, such as unemployment, crime, immigration, care of old people, NHS, welfare reform, Europe.
2. It would have connected with the young and made them an integral part of the campaign.
3. It would have adopted a consultative style in policy making that it would carry through into government.
4. It would have staged primary elections in every constituency, 650 of them, to choose its candidates a year before the general election due to be held on 7 May 2015. This would have enabled its candidates to have spent at least a year working in their constituencies and become well known locally. Constituency primaries would have been big events.
5. It would have found a credible leader and candidates capable of running the departments of state if elected. In other words, it would have become a "Government-in-Waiting".
6. It would have achieved regular coverage in the national media.
7. It would have convincingly attacked the incompetence of the traditional political parties when in government.
If we are to be successful, candidates will have had to come forward by early 2014. How might this happen? It is to be hoped that they would make themselves known spontaneously as a result of participating in the first section of work that starts now and lasts until 2014. This is the drawing up of a full manifesto for government, constructed to the highest standards with the best possible advice. It would need to be a better document than that routinely produced by the political parties. It should be capable of being accepted by civil servants as high-quality work that could be swiftly turned into government policy. At the same time, the same body of work would have to be suitable for forming into a simple document that the electorate would find convincing and reassuring. These are very ambitious requirements, but again it doesn't seems as anything less would do.
This body of work would provide reassurance not only for the electorate but also, in the meantime, for people considering running for election.
It would help to answer the question posed by John Kampfner in an article on the crisis in public life that he recently wrote for the Financial Times. He said: "The current crop of MPs is drawn from a narrow social and professional background: think-tanks, political advisers and journalism. If more elected representatives had spent years as, say, brain surgeons, entrepreneurs or teachers, a calmer atmosphere might have prevailed. But why would a brain surgeon wish to enter such a tarnished fray?"
The plans described here are an attempt to answer that question.
We look forward to hearing from you.
Yours, Andreas Whittam Smith
The Democracy 2015 movement has been started by a team comprising the following volunteers:
To get involved in the campaign, email us at email@example.com answering these questions, and to learn more go to: www.independent.co.uk/democracy2015
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