Fixing Politics (part 2)

In my previous post I described my view of the problem with our current political system – we are a bitterly divided society unable to find compromise, and large numbers of people feel they have no stake in the system. I said we need to reform the system so that every vote counts, and so that politicians are more representative of the people they are supposed to represent. I also said that this was barely half the answer, so this post is my attempt to complete it.

The Voters

I’ve discussed the need to reform the role and responsibilities of politicians, but in representative democracy voters also have responsibilities to fulfil. They must inform themselves sufficiently to understand the problems they face in society, and be able to weigh-up which solutions offered by politicians are in their own best interest (without getting drawn into the minutiae of policy detail). If voters don’t do this, their votes are redundant, and the entire system of representative democracy fatally undermined. This is the liberal fear of a politically inert mass society. Joseph Schumpeter described democracy by the analogy of a commercial car sale. To extend that analogy, most people would not go to a used car salesperson and do whatever they are told on faith. Yet too many people are prepared to go along with whatever they are told when it comes to how society is governed, voting for the same party election after election. Voters must also be able to make basic assessments regarding the quality of information they are given by politicians, including identifying bias. This is even more relevant today given the age of surveillance capitalism, where social media can be used to flood voters with highly targeted political ads. Education is vital to making democracy work, as John Dewey and others have argued. For example, time must be set aside in schools to teach ‘citizenship’, i.e. to teach pupils what society requires of them as citizens, including the skill of determining the value of information and potential biases. Some will argue that politicians should not deceive voters, but this doesn’t seem practical to me. The world is not as simple and binary as truth and lies. There will always be an incentive to selectively use and emphasise information in order to make an argument. Any attempt to prevent politicians from ‘lying’ represents a significant risk to freedom of speech.

Local & Regional Government

There are other changes needed to ensure voters meet their responsibilities as active citizens. During his visit to the United States, Tocqueville identified that the key reasons the U.S. had remained a healthy democracy were the relative weakness of central government, and the self-reliant nature of Americans who managed their own affairs at the local level. Similarly, J S Mill was a keen advocate for decentralisation and for devolving the responsibility for government (local and national) deeply into society. John Dewey was also against top down government, stating that the essence of democracy is a community working out what its needs are and how to satisfy them. With those thoughts in mind, I believe the following reforms are needed: more devolution of authority to local and regional government, and an increase in participative democracy at all levels of government. I will start with local government. The majority of people do not vote in local council elections, partly because local government doesn’t have the authority to resolve local issues. Some people wonder what the point of local elections is. Local government should be given more powers, including on tax and spend. For example they should have the power to determine council tax valuation bands, and to borrow much greater amounts for financially sound projects, such as building council housing.

Devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has been positive, but it is a job half done with unresolved issues (including the need for further devolution and partial transfer of sovereignty, in the style of the U.S state system). One key issue is that it has left the vast majority of the U.K without regional government, i.e. England, which makes up ~80% of the U.K population. The English complain that they should have their own parliament, and others complain that the UK parliament behaves like an English parliament. I think an English parliament would be a missed opportunity and would not address the issue. I believe I’m safe in saying that the people of Newcastle do not relate to the people of Plymouth any more than they do those of Glasgow, and neither have much time for Londoners. I would therefore propose of true system of regional parliaments in England which would follow the model of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland parliaments, and cover the following regions: London, the South, the Midlands and the North. On the thorny issue of the location of these parliaments, I would recommend the parliaments rotate between several locations, similar to the European parliament. This reform should be accompanied by a reduction in the size of the U.K parliament, to match its reduced responsibilities. It would provide significantly more powers to the regions of England, and provide a far better balance of devolution across the U.K.

Participatory Democracy

People only feel they have a stake in a system if they are truly involved in it, and the best way to get people involved is through participatory democracy, which should be employed at every level of government, including locally. It can no longer be acceptable for the general public to be involved in decision making only once every five years, where vague manifestos are subsequently used by governments to justify any policy they choose. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, efforts at participatory democracy in the 1960s and 1970s were ultimately unsuccessful, as there was insufficient appetite among the majority for continued engagement in the management of institutions. It is also contrary to Max Webber’s view that the politics of modern states is too complex for the majority and should be restricted to a small political elite. The example of jury duty points the way forward. As a society we are generally happy for a group of strangers to pass sentence on us, as long as the jury has been selected fairly (i.e. randomly) and they are properly informed when making their decision. People rarely object to being jurors, as long as the request is very occasional. The recent Irish Citizen’s Assembly appears to have been a very successful example of participatory democracy and should be used as a model for the U.K. Such assemblies allow people to have direct access to experts and become knowledgeable on the matters being debated. This is in contrast to referendums, where we are forced to get our information second hand through the often biased rhetoric of politicians and journalists. Careful thought must be given to how Citizen’s Assemblies are integrated with our existing system of representative parliamentary democracy. It would be sensible in my view for sovereignty to remain with parliament and for the outcome of Citizen’s Assemblies to be advisory (although their political authority will likely to significant). Issues should be selected for Citizen’s Assemblies when parliament is struggling to resolve them, or if they are of a constitutional nature.

The Lords & The Monarchy

I could not write about the problems of our political system without mentioning the House of Lords and the Monarchy. The unelected nature of both institutions is a clear affront to democracy, and a relic of a previous era. The current system for appointing members of the House of Lords is vulnerable to corruption (such as various ‘cash for peers’ scandals). The role of the Monarchy is at best an unnecessary confusion in the constitution and at worst a source of significant authority for someone who is in the role purely by chance. We are fortunate that the present Queen has never used her constitutional powers, ambiguous though they may be, but we may not be so lucky in the future. It seems clear to me that the House of Lords must be elected, but the more difficult question is by whom. I don’t think the Lords should be elected in the same way as the Commons. It is too much to ask people to determine who is best placed to scrutinise legislation, and it risks making the Lords too similar to the Commons in behaviour. Being directly accountable to the general public often makes politicians short sighted, election obsessed and too keen on doing what is perceived to be popular. The Lords must be a counterweight to those inclinations. A better compromise would be for the Lords to be elected by the Commons. This would likely lead to more effective Lords, and would maintain a link of accountability to the general public. It also seems clear to me that the Monarchy should be dissolved. As Thomas Paine said, hereditary monarchy is suited only to the ignorant. Many people in response demand to know what we would have instead – surely not a President? Reading Hobbes’ and Montesquieu’s work helps clarify that the sovereign does not have to be an individual, and the head of state does not need to be sovereign. The sovereign is simply the person or body where ultimate political authority resides, and in the case of the U.K that is in reality parliament, not the Monarchy. The Prime Minister in reality already performs the function of a head of state. In short, I can see no need to have anything in place of the Monarchy.

A New Era

Our political system must be reformed so that politicians and the people are brought together. Politicians must be representative and the voters able to hold them to account. Local and regional government must be dramatically strengthened to bring politics closer to people geographically. Participatory democracy must be introduced so that people are involved in real decision making. Finally, reforms must ensure there is no place for undemocratic institutions, including the present House of Lords and the Monarchy. Since the late 1970s we have in the western world been living through the era of neo-liberalism (which itself replaced the post-war settlement). Setting aside the economic flaws of this system, from a political perspective the liberal emphasis on freedom of the individual has led to the idea that we should be free of the interference of governments, leading to deregulation and small government. Unfortunately the power of politics has not reduced but has been handed by politicians to a small elite, with damaging consequences. I think it is time for a new era, and one where politics is for everyone.

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