Fixing Politics (part 1)

Having written about other people’s ideas throughout this blog, I would like to indulge in some of my own thoughts, specifically on the subject of our broken political system and how it might be fixed. I’ve tried to reference some of the political ideas mentioned throughout this blog, to show that they are relevant to today’s problems.

A Broken System

It is common for people to claim that our political system is broken. Increasingly, politics seems unable to solve the key issues we face, be it inequality, climate change, Brexit, and the housing & homeless crisis, just to name some examples. It also feels that we are bitterly divided as a society. In the same way that engines need oil to run smoothly, politics needs debate and compromise. Rousseau said that the fact that people have conflicting interests makes politics necessary and the fact we have common interests makes politics possible. He also said that an unequal society has fewer common interests, a weaker general will, and so is unstable and risks splitting apart. In short, our society is in danger of becoming ungovernable.

In addition, there are large numbers of people in British society (and Western society in general) who don’t feel they have a stake in the system. They don’t feel they can influence politics and don’t feel there is any likelihood that they will benefit from the system regardless of the outcome of elections. This represents a significant threat to democracy itself. Democracy only exists if a sufficient number of people participate in it. If enough people turn away from democracy (either through violent rejection, or, more likely, passive non-participation) it will be replaced by tyranny or oligarchy. Tocqueville articulated the fear that individuals turn away from politics and society and look inwards, making us “nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd”. For democracy to work, people must be active, engaged and informed citizens. We all have a vital role in holding our politicians to account, but increasingly politicians are relying on emotion to win votes, and belittling the importance of facts and logic. The problem is that while people can check facts and debate logic, it is very difficult to counter emotion. The use of emotion is a trait of demagogues and authoritarian leaders, who can all too easily control a politically jaded electorate.

Voting Reform

One question, then, is how the political system should be changed so that the whole population feel they can influence politics and have a stake in it. One vital change is voting reform to introduce a form of proportional representation (PR). Arguments against the current system of First Past the Post are not new. John Stuart Mill identified, in the 19th century, the risk that it is possible under this system to form a parliamentary majority with as little as 20% of the vote. This risk is more likely to be realised today where the influence of the two main parties is much reduced. In the 2015 UK election, for example, six parties gained more than one million votes. However, where the Scottish National Party’s 1.5 million votes earned 56 seats, the Greens’ and UKIP’s combined five million votes earned them merely one seat each. This means that the elected parliament does not represent the overall intention of voters, which undermines the incentive of people to vote. It also leads to inequality of engagement, where the vast majority of party resources are focused on a small number of marginal seats, and the remaining seats are comparatively ignored. Opponent of PR claim that it would lead to coalition governments which are slow, ineffective and represent compromises that no one voted for. Recent years have heavily undermined this argument. The election of 2010 showed that due to our plurality of political parties, coalition government is also likely under the present system. The election of 2015 showed that majority governments are no guarantee of effective government. The polarisation of views and the inability to work across party lines is a large part of what has caused the UK government to grind to a halt in recent years. Coalition governments would force politicians to change their thinking. In my view, we are not going back to true two party politics any time soon, and we need a voting system which reflects that.

‘Us’ and ‘Them’

Having given people a greater incentive to vote by ensuring that every vote counts, there remains the problem that MPs as a group are generally not representative of the population as a whole. This means that some sections of society don’t feel represented by parliament. The term ‘political elite’ is often used pejoratively. Education level is an important example. As of 2017, approximately a third of MPs attended an independent school and around 90% went to university (according to the Social Mobility think tank). Personal wealth is another example. In addition to a salary which is more than three times the UK average, MPs collectively earn millions of pounds a year from second jobs. The combined wealth of the Conservative Cabinet is in the tens of millions, much of which is inherited. This makes it more difficult for MPs to relate to the majority of the people they are supposed to represent. Many argue that we need to pay politicians more in order to attract the best people, but I don’t agree. Offering more money attracts the kind of person who thinks having more money is important, and you only need to look at the financial sector in recent years to see what behaviours that can lead to. The most important qualities of a politician are a moral compass and the ability to relate to their constituents, so that they can make decisions in the best interests of the people they represent.

The Role of Politicians

However, the public’s expectations of their politicians, and in particular their MPs make it a job that very few people would take on. As a parliamentary candidate, this is something I have some small experience of. MPs are expected to master a dizzying array of policy areas and have a ready solution to every problem. They are expected to be good public speakers, be able to talk individually to voters and be polished in media appearances. They must be good people managers and administrators, as well as effective campaigners. They are expected to run the country or scrutinise the government, while simultaneously being at the beck and call of their tens of thousands of constituents. If that is what we expect from our politicians, it is no wonder they are not ‘normal people’. We need to reform the role of MPs, and the biggest opportunity is the relationship between MPs and their constituents. The majority of communication between MPs and their constituents is with a noisy minority, and the majority of issues are either a matter for local government or not a matter for politics at all. This is neither democratic nor an efficient use of an MP’s time. Direct communication between voters and politicians should be with local councillors, who only refer issues to their MP when appropriate. Communication with MPs is important, but should generally be via ‘town hall’ style meetings, which are more open and more efficient.  

Selecting Politicians

If we want politicians to be more representative, another important issue is selection. In general, politicians are selected by political party members from among the members (although it is not uncommon for candidates to be imposed upon local members by the national party, particularly for high profile candidates looking for a safe seat). The flaw in party members selecting candidates has become more obvious in recent years. Membership of all the main parties is now around only 1% of the population. Members are far from representative of the wider population. Around 70% of Conservative Party members are men and over 40% are older than 66. The evidence also suggests that party members generally hold more radical views compared to voters in general. It seems clear that party members are not sufficiently representative of the wider electorate to have such a significant role in selecting MPs. A new method is needed which better engages with the local community, and which selects potential candidates from a much larger pool of people. One method could be to invite all registered groups and societies within a constituency to nominate a candidate for one or more political partys, in a way that is managed by the local council.

Party Funding

Political party membership fees represent one of the sources of funding for a political party, as well as private donations. However, the system of private donations (including from organisations such as unions) must be reformed as it gives donors unfair access and influence over political parties. This is relatively easy to resolve by ensuring that all political party funding comes from the Government (which could be allocated on the basis of votes in the last election). This means that party membership would be free, which should increase participation in politics. It may require higher taxation. However, given that political parties are a necessary part of democracy (at least for the foreseeable future) and everyone benefits from democracy, it is right that every earner helps to pay for it.

To sum up then, in order for people to feel part of the political system, we need voting reform so that every vote matters, and reform of the role and selection of politicians (particularly MPs) so that they truly represent voters. This is barely half the answer to how our political system needs to be fixed, but I feel I’ve written more than enough for one post. I’ll be back to try and complete the answer, and cover themes such as the role of voters, devolution to local & regional government, participative democracy, the nature of sovereignty and the need to address inequality.

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