It is up to us, not politicians, to clean up politics
The Labour politician and intellectual Richard Crossman once described the British constitution, with a sovereign Parliament at its centre, as a “rock” against periodic “waves of popular emotion”.
As MPs reflect on the recent expenses scandal during their 82-day summer break, many will be tempted to congratulate themselves for once again weathering the storm of public outrage.
At the height of the crisis the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition were competing with each other to propose ever-more radical constitutional solutions to the catastrophic loss of trust precipitated by the Telegraph’s revelations of MPs’ shameless, and in many cases fraudulent, abuse of taxpayers’ money. Gordon Brown called for “a written constitution”, David Cameron for giving “power to the powerless” and Nick Clegg, whose party has long been calling for reform of a “rotten” Westminster system, demanded change in “100 days”.
The impulse of all three party leaders to respond to the furore with promises of democratic reform showed they understood public anger was about more than simply duck houses, moats, dry rot, and other abuses of expenses, however petty or extravagant: it was symptomatic of a much deeper disconnect between the public and politicians that has been building for years.
The problem comes from an over-centralised and antiquated British state whose monarchical constitution is totally unsuited to represent the interests of a modern pluralist society. Parliament itself is a creature of the executive that has permitted the systematic erosion of rights and freedoms under a barrage of illiberal legislation and failed to prevent disastrous decisions like the Iraq war.
Our absurdly unjust electoral system means that, when the Prime Minister exercises his royal power to call an election, the effective choice of voters is confined to two parties born out of ancient class antagonisms but now purged of ideology by party managers chasing “floating voters” in the handful of marginal constituencies that determine who wins.
Local government meanwhile lacks independence or any meaningful power with 90% of its funding coming from the centre. In these circumstances it’s no wonder the public feels alienated and cut off from the political system with so many choosing not to vote (40% in recent general elections).
But now that the two main party leaders have shown signs they understand the problem, where is the revolution we’ve been promised? Unfortunately, there’s every indication that much of what was said in the heat of the crisis was mere rhetoric aimed at appeasing angry voters until the whole thing blows over.
Cameron has quietly dropped his earlier talk of reform emphasising the victory of his party in a general election as the best solution to the democratic crisis. The comfortable victory of the Tories in the recent by-election in Norwich North will only strengthen defenders of the status quo within his party, despite the abysmal 45% turnout.
The Prime Minister, meanwhile, served up a pathetic Constitutional Reform Bill in the last few days of Parliament which makes a few tweaks to the House of Lords without taking us much further towards a democratic second chamber. There’s apparently talk from inside Number 10 of a possible referendum on the voting system at the next election, but the only alternative to first-past-the-post being muted is the unproportional AV system which would do nothing to ensure the seats a party has fairly reflects the number of votes it receives.
It’s almost impossible to feel inspired by such weak proposals for reform aimed at party advantage and offered in a controlling and calculating spirit without popular involvement. It’s clear that if we’re going to seize the political moment opened up by the expenses crisis and secure the kind of modern constitutional democracy polls consistently show voters want then we cannot rely on politicians to do this for us.
What is needed is a popular force of opinion outside Parliament demanding change at the next election. This means citizens meeting together in living rooms, pubs and town-halls across the country to discuss the kind of democracy we want before joining together independently of parties, corporate media and the formal structures of political power, to pressure parties and candidates at the next election.
In the coming weeks the Rowntree Trusts will be launching an open politics network that aims to help galvanise such a movement. It will assist citizens to organise, draw up and articulate a clear demand for change at the next election, reinforced by the involvement of thousands across the country. If it succeeds, we, the people, will exercise a moral hold over the next Parliament and make real change happen. The alternative is a return to business as usual with an angry and helpless electorate even more alienated from a political system they feel does not represent them – and politicians smug and insulated in their “rock”.