Andreas Whittam Smith: The revolution starts here – by text

National politics is discredited. The wrong people are in power. The whole system is broken. But through technology we can all fight back

Saturday 14 March 2009 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


How can we clean up our discredited national politics and make the system fit for purpose? The only method that I can see would be to harness the power of the internet to elect a substantial bloc of independent members to Parliament at the next general election. They would have to have a reforming mandate. Because this has never happened before, it will be thought implausible. But has faith in Parliament and government ever been so low?

It is better to concentrate on improving the quality of the people who go into Parliament rather than on reforming the constitution. Voters want their elected representatives to be honest (no more fiddling of expenses), effective (so that they debate the things that really matter such as the huge cost of rescuing the banks) and focused on the national interest (rather than, say, being obsessed with wrong-footing each other).

The way to secure the election of independent members is to use digital technology flat out: websites, emails, mobile phones, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, blogs, e-newsletters, online advertising. Barack Obama made masterly use of the internet during his march to the White House. Earlier this week, in an announcement that could prove to be momentous for British politics, an organisation called the Jury Team, created by Sir Paul Judge, stated that through its website,, it would arrange a nationally co-ordinated process that would select independent candidates in primary elections. We would cast our votes by mobile phone. And then at the general election, the candidates thus selected would have the backing of the Jury Team in making full use of digital technology in all its forms.

This difficult, path-breaking work would be unnecessary if politicians could grasp how disappointing is their performance and do something about it. Whenever there is a major failure of government policy, I always think that at last the lessons will be learnt. This could have happened after the botched handling of mad cow disease. Or after the repeated failures of the Child Support Agency. Or after the cost overruns and failures of IT projects across the public sector. Or after the bungled introduction of home information packs. Or after the mishandling of new contracts for doctors and dentists. Or after the abandonment of supercasinos. Or after the late marking of SATs. Or after frequent losses of personal data. But every time the conclusion is reached that the explanations for the disaster are local, particular and not part of a pattern. What is never identified is the underlying problem – incompetence of ministers and slack scrutiny by the House of Commons.

We can assume, therefore, that Parliament is incapable of reforming itself. We shall have get in there and do it ourselves. The means are to hand. A new Parliament must be elected before the end of 2010. I believe there are countless talented people outside the political parties who would put themselves up for election if they thought they stood a chance of winning. What should encourage them to make the attempt is that the coming of digital technology breaks the parties' stranglehold.

Of course, by definition, independent MPs would reach their own conclusions about the big issues of the day and cast their votes in House of Commons accordingly. But I would want them to commit themselves to a prior duty, which is to push for the reform of the political process so that it produces better results. To do this there are four major improvements that should be made.

First, the capacity of Parliament to scrutinise the proposals of the Government and hold it to account for its decisions should be strengthened. Second, higher standards should be set for the preparation of government policies. Third, an effective balance should be struck between the centre of government, responsible for the overall policy framework, and government departments, whose task should be to frame policies and deliver services in their specialist areas of responsibility. Fourth, service deliverers, such as the NHS and local authorities, should not be micro-managed by departments or by Downing Street but should be set clear objectives against which their performance would be monitored.

Not the least of the effects of the arrival of a substantial body of independent members into the House of Commons, if such could be achieved, would be a change in the nature of a political careers. Paradoxically the increasing professionalisation of politics, so that few MPs have done little else than serve their parties in one capacity of another, often starting out as research assistants, has led to a lowering of standards rather than an improvement. I hope that the Jury Team initiative will change all this. Independent candidates could have spent their careers to date in business, or in the voluntary sector, or in public service, or they may be farmers or soldiers, teachers or journalists, doctors or engineers or be pursuing other occupations. Nor should they think that they are making a permanent career switch. To do one or two terms in Parliament and then go back to one's former way of earning a living should become quite usual.

So is this all pie in the sky? I don't think so. The novelty of independent candidates and the full use of digital technology could persuade a lot of habitual non-voters to participate. Don't forget that a 2005 YouGov poll showed that 24 per cent of the electorate would vote for "none of the above". Moreover it is more and more difficult to discern reliable voting patterns. According to recent polling evidence, only 10 per cent of the electorate strongly identifies with any political party: 90 per cent of the electorate are open to hear arguments about which party they should support. One can also observe substantial volatility. Many voters change their minds during the campaign itself.

In other words, everything is to play for. The most important general elections of the past 70 years were 1945 when the Labour Party swept the victorious war leader, Winston Churchill, and the Conservative Party out of power and 1979 when Mrs Thatcher upset the post-war consensus. The general election of 2010 could be of the same order – the year when a worn-out political process was swept away by a revolution in communications technology.

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