‘THE TECTONIC plates are moving’ is a phrase much loved by political commentators. The revolution we are presently witnessing is, however, unprecedented in modern times and gathers momentum by the day. Throughout Europe, the old parties are being rejected in favour of parties of protest. Sweden is already being governed by a coalition of losers and the UK looks set to follow suit in May 2015.
Scotland produced an 85% turnout to stay within the Union but with 1.6m people voting to leave the matter is far from resolved. Ukip, after many years in the doldrums, returned two MPs in quick succession striking fear into the heart of the establishment. Whatever happens in the 2015 General Election, we already know that the vast majority of people are not going to get the government they vote for. We have entered a new phase in the political cycle but with little control or knowledge of the outcome. Austerity Britain has many problems but not only on the home front. Once able to project force at an international level, Britain is now powerless to prevent genocide and human rights abuses on an industrial scale overseas. This is humiliating but unlikely to change until we rediscover a sense of patriotism, pride and common purpose.
Thankfully, one of our biggest problems is not yet beyond repair. Spirited debate is an essential part of any democracy however our parliament is poisoned by ancient and destructive class warfare. Before the advent of political parties local people made local decisions and their representatives were part of the community. Unfortunately this gave way to political tribalism which now polarises local councils as well. Between them, the Conservative and Labour parties held power for almost one hundred years. Driven by the constant need to get re-elected, both parties became self-serving fighting machines, often battling over the same centre ground. This caused voters to lose interest culminating in there being no outright winner of the 2010 general election.
A ‘coalition agreement’, which no-one had voted for, was drawn up behind closed doors by the Conservative and Lib-Dem parties (neatly exposing the fallacy that proportional representation will increase democracy. The world has moved on since political parties were formed. Apart from the erosion of social divisions, the biggest factor has been the quality and speed of modern communications. The current political system dates from an age when the fastest form of sending information was carrier pigeon. We now have internet in our pocket, we can contact and be contacted 24/7 and yet our elected representatives need only enter our sphere of influence once every five years; this is plainly unsustainable. For the first time ever, almost everyone is able to share their knowledge, experience and preferences via the internet and social media. Yet our political system remains rooted in a bygone age blocking out those it is supposed to serve.
If information technology was properly utilised the electorate could easily become part of the decision making process. This would unite people and give them a sense of purpose rather than causing division, as with devolution. If you were to put similar questions about issues such as education, housing, healthcare and tax to people as far apart as Britain and Australia you would get similar answers. The needs and aspirations of people across the world are remarkably similar and there is absolutely no need for different parts of our small island to be governed as separate countries.
The most common argument used by independence campaigners in Scotland was the need to escape from Westminster incompetence – and who can argue with that? There is a growing demand for Localism which is entirely different from Nationalism and requires the benign devolution of more powers to a local level. Throughout the UK, town halls which used to be run very well by volunteers stand ready to serve. If the House of Commons had been made more democratic and accountable, then the drive for devolution would probably not have gathered momentum in the first place. The vast majority of people want little involvement in politics and will tolerate a great deal to get on with their own lives. The problem with Scottish MPs voting on English matters is not that those Scots are necessarily unintelligent or mightn’t have something constructive to add. The real problem is that they are used as pawns by their political masters. An English MP from Cornwall is no more qualified to vote on an issue at Carlisle than a Scottish MP from Dumfries.
We must seize the opportunity offered by high speed communication to create a political system that includes and empowers those it serves. We need a system capable of transforming disillusioned and occasional voters into enthusiastic participants. We must get as many people as practical involved in the democratic process so that as many decisions as possible reflect the will of the people. We must also put an end to the use of the House of Commons as a brash ‘auction hall’ to offer political bait.
Most of us have deeply entrenched beliefs which influence our views across a range of subjects. We also hold different views about the capabilities of our fellow man. Some believe that the majority of people are incapable of making sensible decisions on important issues. That all we can expect from the electorate is a general steer depending on what policies the two main political parties have on offer at the time.
Others, hopefully the majority, believe that most people are capable of arriving at the right decision, especially if they believe that their opinion will be taken into consideration. They also understand that any administration’s success depends on bottom up support rather than top down legislation. If you are a member of the former group, then the political system we already have operates in accordance with your beliefs. If, however, you believe that the majority are perfectly capable of acting sensibly and responsibly, then you can help the campaign for reform. We must re-connect with our elected representatives, remove the need for them to bribe us with our own money and prevent political parties using them for their own ends. The history of the British people is one of tolerance, responsibility and pragmatism and we have nothing to fear by giving them more say.
We can make a start by giving the electorate the power to recall their MP and grant MPs a mandate to vote freely on any issue other than a manifesto commitment. These simple steps would refocus the political machine and transform the way our parliament conducts its business. MPs would henceforth be free to concentrate on evidence-based decision making rather than political manoeuvring. Spirited debate would doubtless continue, but we would now have meaningful debates and not just the fulfilment of past electoral bribes or new campaigns to get re-elected. Political expediency would give way to the expressed will of an electorate democratically embedded in the process.
Once free voting became the norm, it would make sense to modernise how MPs are elected and ministerial appointments made. The purpose of holding a general election every five years is to hold governments to account by changing parties and the process is positively mediaeval. The incumbent party gets blamed for everything, the opposition offers ‘incentives’ and the electorate ends up getting bribed with its own money. This is the vicious circle which must be broken before any real progress will ever be made. General elections are extremely time consuming and hugely disruptive; not only does the entire government, including its Prime Minister, have to change places overnight, but the relationship between Ministers and their department is also severed. This regular bloodletting weakens political control and allows the Whitehall executive to retain unaccountable power. Rather than holding every constituency election on a single day to change parties, it would make a great deal more sense to have a permanent parliament with its component parts being held accountable instead. This would make MPs directly accountable to their constituents but give them a much more rewarding and stable workplace in return. It would also solve the problem of the majority of voters not getting the government they voted for.
The parliamentary term would become a settled and productive continuum marked only by the periodic election of a prime minister and the constant check and refreshment of its Members. The House of Commons would move from political chicanery, short-term fixes and opportunism to become an institution we could be proud of. MPs would poll their constituents, ahead of any vote where they had expressed particular interest, and either follow their mandate or risk recall. Democracy would be strengthened and elected representatives placed beyond fear or favour by vested interests. An annual window would be opened in each constituency for a vote of confidence. If more than 10% of constituents supported a motion for recall, a by-election would be held. In return MPs would be offered ten year terms, attractive salaries and a commercially proven system of expenses.
All important appointments are made by the Prime Minister from within the ranks of his own back-benchers. Consequently, few MPs will ever vote against the party line. Patronage thus provides the base for political power but strangles democracy. It also denies many well-intentioned and capable MPs the opportunity to make a positive contribution. A much better system would be for MPs to select Ministers from within their own ranks. Appointments could then be made on merit and be open to all MPs, rather than just those from the winning side. These measures would underpin the transfer of power from the party machine back to the electorate. They would also guarantee that the present tribal system, held together by political patronage, is replaced by a much more effective and democratic model. The economy would benefit, democracy would benefit and our MPs would also benefit.
In conclusion: Political parties once had to marshal the opposing forces of labour and privilege but times have moved on. Not only do they prevent MPs from achieving their full potential but, with less than one percent of the electorate now a party member, these relics of the past have lost whatever mandate they once had to control our parliamentary system. Our MPs should no longer be controlled by parties interested only in gaining power. The ongoing unrest in Scotland provides a potent reminder of just how unacceptable Westminster has become, and not only to the Scots. It must be reformed so that the views, needs and aspirations of ordinary people are woven into its fabric rather than being cynically traded upon to gain votes. We have already suffered the humiliation of having to watch helplessly as innocent men, women and children are abused, terrorised and slaughtered in other lands. Unless we can reform our rotten political system, we may also have to witness the uncontrolled disintegration of the United Kingdom into four or more competing factions. Our country and our society are now at a crossroads. Borrowing is out of control, technology is replacing labour and other challenges lie ahead. No government can overcome these problems on its own. Unless the electorate become participants rather than unhappy and critical bystanders, meaningful reform will be impossible. Preserving a strong and progressive United Kingdom for future generations now depends on this generation developing a competent political system to serve our island state. The status quo is no longer an option and we must act whilst we still have the means, and the wit, to do so.
For further information on the possibilities of change please visit the Campaign for a Free Parliament which follows in the steps of the original Chartists www.freeourparliament.com backed up by two secure voting platforms www.voteScotland.org and www.voteEngland.org