Thursday, 28 February 2019

Politics is broken. Here's how to fix it.


There have been several articles entitled "Politics is broken. Here's how to fix it". There will be many more of them. All of them will be wrong and only this one will be right.

If you want to fix anything you must first understand what is broken and why. It starts with perceptions. There is a perception that politicians are lazy, narcissistic, venal and self-serving. To a very large extent this is true.

As one tweeter put it recently "Politics is no longer about policy-making, it’s about media-making. The sum total of what MPs do now is manufacture messages and manage media. There is almost no listening, all is broadcasting. This is why they’re so keen to outsource policy/technocracy to EU. More time for Sky".

This explains Jess Phillips's lip wobbling performance in parliament this week. It is also partly why Prime Minister's Questions has turned into feeding time at London Zoo. This is the ugly side effect of putting cameras in parliament. MPs want their moment on camera so they can tweet it to their followers. The closer we get to election time the more questions we hear concerning what are generally local matters, dropping in the name of a cancer hospice or some other good cause.

Ultimately it is the system that produces these behaviours. People very often complain that they want "people like us" rather than careerist politicians, but actually, of the 650 MPs, we only hear from about two dozen of them. The rest of them you would struggle to name in a line up. When on occasion they do put their heads above the parapet, it becomes clear that a great many politicians are "people like us" - ie we could just as easily have dragged them in off the street. 

Here you have to wonder how they make it through local selection - which perhaps suggests a lack of quality control at the local level. This is largely because old style party politics has all but collapsed. Most people's fullest engagement in politics is turning up to periodically vote and usually they vote for brands not candidates. They shouldn't but they do.

We know this is true because of the eleven defectors to the new Independent Group, none of them are prepared to resign and stand for re-election. None of them are there on personal merit and those who hail from seats that would elect a hatstand if the rosette was the right colour would stand no chance at all.

Here we need to be honest. We're not going to fix those voting habits. Politics is tribal because humans are tribal. For sure we could tinker with the voting system which would allow other brands to compete, but that doesn't really do anything. Whoever you vote for you still end up with an MP who inevitably conforms to the rules of the system. They go native often without realising.

For sure, first past the post has a lot to answer for. It raises a high bar of entry so that a brand has to establish national recognition before we see breakthroughs and in the case of Ukip, a party can be dominating the agenda yet sill fail to score a single MP. But then supposing we had proportional representation, what would it change? It's not like Ukip views are not represented in parliament. the grunter wing of the Tory party is virtually indistinguishable from Ukip.

The real problem is Westminster itself. We put the power into the hands of the few which then becomes the focal point for all the think tanks and media, creating a grubby little circlejerk where policy is largely recycled matter originating from London's inner suburbs. The result being a system where dross votes on a procession of bad ideas - many of them the result of lobbying.

Being that London has become the central focus of the national debate, we then ponder why local newspapers and radio are dying out. The simple answer is that nothing of consequence is decided locally. Health and education policy tends to be set by Whitehall and anything beyond that is decided by Brussels. Brexit brings little remedy in that the faceless unelected bureaucrats of Whitehall will take over where Brussels left off. Certainly remaining in the EU would make it a magnitude worse but without major reform of our domestic democracy, Brexit is value neutral.

Here there is some recognition for the need for greater localism, and just about every MP and think tank wonks mouths the usual platitudes but their idea of devolution is to establish yet more elected offices to run regional quangos. All the while our local democracies are falling away as councils merge into mega councils. What little power they have is licenced power from London rather than power in its own right. The capacity for local political action to actually change anything is minimal.

A few things need to happen here. Firstly we need to scale back the remit of Westminster by way of a new constitution placing limits on what it can do. The less power it has the less damage it can do. Secondly we need to recognise that people vote for brands and leaders rather than individual candidates. This is why we need separation of powers and a directly elected executive.

We have seen how the media has turned elections into televised game shows with unedifying leaders debates. Sadly they are here to stay even though we may wish it otherwise. Our media driven politics has turned it into presidential style elections when we do not have a presidential system. If then, people are going to cast their votes on the basis of leaders then they need to be elected separately from MPs and at a different time.

that then means we have two elections. One where we select the executive - an election based on brands and personalities, and one where we have to select on a local basis thus making it more candidate centric. This has the merit of potentially improving the quality of government. Part of the reason we have such a lightweight cabinet is that the recruiting pool comes mainly from the commons. Garbage in, garbage out. Separation of powers means any PM can look outside of the bubble to recruit people who can get things done - subject to parliamentary confirmation.

Real separation of powers then means the executive proposes and parliament acts as the referee. The government does not then have the ability to create new cabinet nonjobs to buy the allegiance of MPs. They are then free to vote more often according to their own conscience.

Politics as we currently know it does seem to attract all the wrong sorts. Consequently parliament has lost much of its gravitas. All too often they indulge in trivialities and "virtue signalling" on matters best decided locally. If politics in Westminster isn't working then we need to take as much of it out of Westminster as possible. Parliament should mainly concern itself with matters that can only be decided exclusively on a national level be it trade, defence, foreign affairs and criminal law. More or less everything else should be shunted out to local authorities where it belongs.

All too often when politicians and hacks talk about democratic reform, the fullest extent of their imaginings is tinkering with the voting system. They are not going to do anything that breaks their grip on power. And that is what this is all about. Power. Who has it and how it is wielded. For there to be meaningful democracy the people themselves must have the power.

Presently we have a system whereby we can elect our dictators for the next five years. Beyond that we don't get a say and we become passenger of politics without a people's veto on what is done to us. This is why we need to make greater use of referendums local and national. The origins of Brexit lie not in austerity but of a rogue political class who see us as their plaything whereby they will impose their agenda with ruthless zeal if they think they can get away with it.

This is how we ended up with freedom of movement. This is how we became so deeply enmeshed in the European project. This is how we ended up with so many destructive national policies from the original nationalisations through to the privatisation of the 80's - stealing and selling that which was not theirs.

It is unrealistic to expect that we will ever turn out decent politicians. We have wildly inflated expectations which largely ignore human nature. Plenty of good people go to London to do good but the system changes them, their priorities change and they become addicted to the lifestyle. We all think things would be better if only they were people like us. But they were once people like us. What matters is not who we send. It's our ability to direct them and where necessary get rid of them.

To have a functioning democracy real power needs to be in the hands of the people and we must have constitutional restraints on what politicians can do to us - especially when they have so brazenly given away powers that were not their to give away. We can tinker with the system this way and that, but without addressing the central question of who has the power and where it resides, all attempts at reform are missing the point spectacularly.

Over the last few months we have seen calls for new parties but we have been here before. they all make their wishlist manifestos, usually written from a position of issue illiteracy meaning that were they to come to power, when their ideas clash with the real world, they part company with their election manifestos. Promises to tinker with policy this way or that is really just more of the same where we delegate politics to politicians in London. What is it they say about doing the same thing over and expecting different results?

What ails Britain is the cultural and moral disconnect between the rulers and the ruled. London metropolitan politics is imposed on a far more conservative country. The fact that we are ruled at all is the central issue. It matters not whether it is a king or a parliament or a European parliament. For as long as we are subject to the top-down diktats of London then we can't call ourselves a democracy. Exchanging unelected bureaucrats in Brussels for occasionally elected idiots in London is hardly much of an improvement. Unless we are prepared to radically rethink the distribution of power, any talk of reform is yet more hot air.   

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