Andreas Whittam Smith: Seven ways we could reform our broken political system

Mr Brown thinks up a vote-winning headline he'd like to see, then conjures up a policy

Friday 17 July 2009 00:00

What is to be done? That question is being asked with increasing urgency about the British political system. Can we go on any longer with our dysfunctional, discredited, dishonourable arrangements? Or, to put the challenge in more practical terms, how can we use the next few months to bring about such a profound change at the forthcoming general election that there can be a fresh start? The scandalous exploitation by Members of Parliament of the expenses system, while it is far from the most serious deficiency of our system of government, has had the perverse benefit of making people very angry.

For fierce disgust is a necessary condition for carrying through substantial improvements in the way we are governed. The last time this happened was in the winter of 1978-79, when public sector workers went out on strike for weeks. Uncollected mountains of rubbish were piled high in the cities, army vehicles replaced ambulances and bodies remained unburied. At the subsequent general election, the untried Margaret Thatcher, proposing real change, swept Labour out of power for 18 years. Substitute MPs' expenses for the "winter of discontent" and you see that today's political conditions closely resemble those of 30 years ago.

However, to understand how far the rot in government has spread, note what Lord Malloch-Brown said last week when he resigned after a short spell as a Foreign Office minister. Gordon Brown's government was more "chaotic" than many administrations in the developing world, he said. Everything was cobbled together at the last minute and no one took the time to plan ahead.

It was no better when Tony Blair was Prime Minister. In one of the entries in his diary, recounting his days working at 10 Downing Street, Lance Price comments: "Tony Blair's political note to everybody today (14 May 2000) was quite funny. They never seem to produce any real action because of [No 10's] ludicrous lack of an effective command structure and absence of discipline. He has obviously spotted this and says, 'I don't write them for fun'."

Or go back to John Major's government. Writing about the BSE crisis in cattle, Sir Richard Packer, who was a senior civil servant at the time, wrote: "Ministers collectively panicked. None of these established conventions were followed In the absence of standard procedures, disorder and confusion abounded." Indeed, our last three prime ministers, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, have been masters of dysfunction.

The unnecessary deaths of our soldiers in Afghanistan because of shortcomings in their equipment flow directly from the pervasive chaos that penetrates much of government. Which brings up the first question for those of us who want a big change: would a government led by David Cameron be any better? I wouldn't bank on it for a variety of reasons. Like Tony Blair before him, Mr Cameron would enter Downing Street when his party had been in opposition for a lengthy period. He would be subject to the same strong temptation to put securing a second term as the overriding priority. If so, Mr Cameron might easily find himself driven to allowing presentation to dictate policy as Mr Blair was. We would again, for instance, have government by gesture.

As before, the announcement of new legislation would be chiefly designed to serve public relations purposes, with little consideration given to the detailed contents of the Bills placed before Parliament. The MP Chris Mullin wrote in his diary for May 2003: "Today we nodded through Blunkett's plan for ratcheting up life sentences and doubling (from seven to 14 days) the length of time that terrorist suspects can be held without trial. Both of these measures have only appeared in the last 10 days, so there has been no previous opportunity for discussion."

Mr Brown is an equally awful example. First, he thinks up the vote-winning headline he would like to see, then he conjures up a policy that would produce the desired result. After that, he watches with dismay as numerous objections to the desired policy are voiced and finally he makes a U-turn. Would Mr Cameron finally be so different once he got under way? Fears that Mr Cameron in office would be more or less the same as before, with a different voice, are causing many people to echo the title of Lenin's famous pamphlet and ask themselves: "What is to be done?" In a useful posting on the openDemocracy website, Anthony Barnett describes seven suggestions that are being actively discussed as ways of delivering change. I list them here.

1. Take a single issue like electoral reform and demand a referendum on it at the same time as the election, as the key issue that will open up change. This is the approach of "Vote for Change".

2. Generate basic pledges for change that are then taken to all candidates to create a reforming Parliament.

3. Meet, deliberate, hold a convention, decide, influence, elect and hold to account, starting with 1,000 meetings in pubs or living rooms around the UK, or as part of discussions in existing networks. This is the original "Real Change" proposal.

4. Get Parliament to pass an Act empowering a citizen's deliberative convention to decide on a set of major reforms. A Bill to do this has been written by "Unlock Democracy".

5. Launch a campaign to "Take back our Parliament". This would focus on how it represents us (proportionality, open primaries), its honesty (transparency), defending our liberties (independence) and its funding (no corruption).

6. Bring about a network of independent candidates committed to implementing a reform agenda.

7. Organise an online force for change on the lines of MoveOn in the US. This is the approach adopted by the campaign group 38 Degrees.

It would be interesting to know what readers think of this list. Faced with such a choice of dishes, I would prefer to take something from most of them. I would cheerfully join a campaign to take back our Parliament. It has been at the centre of the nation's life for 600 to 700 years and it is only through Parliament that legitimate change can be achieved, so that is where I would start. British government can be reformed only from the inside, not the outside.

To do this, I would take up the suggestion that a network of independent candidates committed to implementing a reform agenda should be created. Their aim would have to be the incredibly ambitious one of forming the next government. I hope that such a force, if it could be formed, would commit itself to cleaning up our system of government within the life of a single Parliament and then withdraw. It wouldn't be possible to keep the traditional parties at bay for much longer than that.

I would also borrow from MoveOn its mastery of the internet for political purposes. And to establish what such a reform programme should comprise, I would go with the "Real Change" proposal and have the 1,000 meetings around the country. In his pamphlet, Lenin called for the formation of a new party. That, too, is what a lot of people are thinking about, though in my mind it would be strictly temporary – its task would be to make our political system fit for the 21st century. Job done, its representatives would return to ordinary life.

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