Sunday, 9 May 2010

Fixing our broken politics

Voters didn’t trust any party to govern alone and have sent MPs back to fix our broken political system. But it will take time to learn how to govern when no party has total control, and longer to sort out our constitution. Meanwhile, the City threatens to overrule the electorate. Our archaic voting system can’t compete with the constant poll of fund managers who promise retribution on any government which does not bow to their demands. As John Cridland, CBI deputy-director general, has warned “we are not in control of our destiny.”

So how can we gain control of our destiny, if at all?

Adair Turner, head of the Financial Service Authority, pointed out that “British citizens will be burdened for many years with either higher taxes or cuts in public services because of an economic crisis … cooked up in trading rooms where … many people earned annual bonuses equal to a lifetime’s earning of some of those now suffering the consequences.”

This election has pushed our voting system up the political agenda, but it is only one of many flaws in our democratic systems. The unaccountable power of finance is perhaps the greatest of these. Most people and politicians don’t really know how it works, so we also need to understand it better. At a local level, most of our public institutions and neighbourhoods are largely unaccountable to the people they serve – a theme of David Cameron’s Big Society which deserves more attention than it got – while local government is largely remote and unresponsive; the relationship between nations, regions and great cities of the United Kingdom is fractured and unstable; while the governance of Europe and the world cannot cope with the urgent demands of global interdependence. These are all important themes for practical politics and this blog.

We are at the foothills of immense constitutional change. Devolution to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London started the process at home, while the Maastricht Treaty, WTO, UN Millennium Summit and G20 have begun a slow movement to a new global settlement. Although the surging economic strength of China, India and Brazil will play a bigger role in this settlement than our domestic politics, whom we send to the World Bank, IMF, Bank of International Settlements, UN Security Council and other institutions of global governance matters, because the UK still has a seat at the top table. Our broken politics will not be fixed until we also address the accountability of the City and financial system, which will ultimately be done through global agreement.

Who we send to represent us in global politics is decided by whoever commands the British Parliament.

So first I want to reflect on the general election result of 2010. It is as if people have sussed that one party rule makes governments arrogant and unresponsive. The system that gave us a one party state supported by less than a quarter of the electorate is bust. The old politics of arithmetic, in which numbers were added up to anoint an elected dictatorship, in Lord Hailsham’s famous phrase, are over. Jonathan Bartley of Ekklesia  described our electoral system as immoral, a travesty worse than the expenses scandal. Many groups have come together in a movement to ‘take back parliament. The call for democratic reform has come alive again.

Some still hark for “strong, decisive government”, forgetting the many costly mistakes made by every government in its exercise of sovereign power. All parties are covert coalitions. The confident front of collective leadership always hides dirty deals between party factions – over Europe, electoral reform, pensions, unions and more. A multi-polar parliament moves the veil out from the internal politics of the ruling party and civil service out to a wider arena of inter-party politics. This is still far from open democracy, but it should lead to better decision-making as the assumptions of one party are tested against another. Our political leaders are at least talking to each other, testing how their mandates from the people and political philosophy can work together to fix our political system and govern effectively at the same time. But all members of parliament should also be involved in this process before too long.
Those of us far outside the charmed circles of inter-party politics have an important role in fixing our broken political system:

- join the movement to Take Back Parliament: sign up, protest in Parliament Square, London, from 2pm on Saturday 15th May, and get involved in the debate about constitutional reform (or learn more about it if you are unconvinced);

- encourage people to get involved in practical politics, through a party, pressure group or campaign to make sure the politics system addresses issues that concern you;

- and join the dots between our local politics and the global system.

Voters who didn’t trust any party to govern alone cannot walk away and leave MPs to clean up the mess. We all share a responsibility to fix our broken political system. Whatever issues we care about, from traffic in our neighbourhood to democratic deficit in the absolute power of money markets over elected governments, we cannot sort them out through a broken politics.

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