Our democratic politics isn’t working and, in my view, its dysfunction is one of the major causes of our present national crisis.
In so many ways, our political structures and democratic processes – not just here in the UK, but manifestly in other countries too – are under attack and also in question. We have to renew them, not just for democracy the better to defend itself and survive, but for our own sakes, that it may work properly for us and help us flourish. Mr Johnson and his dreadful gang of dishonourables have no incentive to do this work. They profit from and abuse our present unfitness. It is our unfitness that has inflicted them on us.
I see the UK’s Brexit saga as more an illustration and manipulation of our general malaise, disorientation and disenchantment, than a coherent choice or political decision in itself. It is on a par with America’s surrender to Trump and with lurchings to the far Right elsewhere, a mere symptom of ill-health, of things gone wrong. And one of those things “gone wrong” is our democratic system itself, left behind by rapid change and failing to connect and to deliver.
For years, those systems have simply and on their own account lagged behind contemporary conditions, in many aspects far behind, merely adding to the social breakdown and fragmentation. Furthermore, we now face global emergencies that demand effective action and international co-operation on an unprecedented scale. For all our sakes, and above all for our children’s sakes, our systems need both to be capable of effective action in co-operation with others, and to facilitate those things. They are presently in no fit state to do so.
I am not qualified to cover all the ground here and anyway should not try. The ground ranges far and wide. Some of the issues are already very old chestnuts, but still left unresolved, still hanging provokingly on the tree, dried out and wizened. I’ll simply name the obvious ones here. The Labour Party under its new leadership is presently engaged in a policy review and surely needs to consider carefully each one of these chestnuts, as part of the exercise. Where is Keir Starmer’s Labour Party going to stand, in relation to them ?
- Proportional Representation
- Reform of the House of Lords
- The role of the Political Party, of Party management, of “advisors” to the minister, the Parties’ powers and rights over their MP’s, the purpose and proper function of the Whips and also the lobbyists.
- Citizen Forums and public participation generally
- Regional Devolution
- A Constitution for the UK, yes or no ?
The above is just a list of political body parts obviously in question and ripe, or over-ripe, for resolution and decision, each part (and question) vital and demanding of conclusive address. And below, I want to add a few more, just as vital.
But beforehand, I think we need to ask a few questions about the business of democracy as a whole, in terms of general principles and our understanding of those. A viable political force needs to take and communicate a clear position on these issues, no less than on the “body parts” listed above and below.
So what would the Labour Party’s stated position be on the meaning of democracy/party/representation/ accountability/sovereignty ? Would it be able to make clear statements in response to the following propositions :
1/ democracy is something more complex than delivering slogans and propaganda and then counting votes via plebiscite and referendum ;
2/ seeking popularity at any cost, is not the same thing as being truly “democratic” in response to expressed need or opinion ;
3/ an MP is more than delegate or mere mouthpiece for his/her constituents or party members on the one side, or Party whips on the other ;
4/ a political Party is a present and maybe temporary alliance for the achievement of agreed goals, rather than some fixed and backward looking comfort zone for lost souls and nostalgic fundamentalists ;
5/ Parliament is more than just a counting house, or quaint theatre filled with rival choruses yelling hear hear at each other. It is where the People in authority resides, and where accountable decisions are made, cleanly arrived at, in good faith…
For, lurking behind many of the present-day arguments and shouting-matches, there seem to be all sorts of conflicting understandings of what democracy actually is or should be, in present conditions. The EU referendum of 2016 was a dog’s dinner, a mockery of democratic due process. To conclude afterwards that “The People have spoken” (a statement made in a hushed tone as if speaking of a deity, or oracle) was just another step along a way of utter madness and abuse and disgrace. On these matters of national and international import, we need decisions made that are properly informed, inclusively arrived at and above all wise, for everyone’s sake ; we need ways and means of arriving at those decisions that are fit for purpose, respectful of all parts of the community, and connected to reality.
Might the Labour Party prepare some clear position statements on these topics, thereby making competent and responsible governance more possible and more likely than it is now ? The Party’s present consultation exercise is a precious opportunity to make our whole governance better. If the exercise is just about how to unite the Labour Party itself, or merely what policies the Party should follow, that opportunity might well be squandered, to everyone’s enormous and immeasurable cost, including that of the Labour party. I shall resort to imagery to emphasise my point here : the Labour Party restricting itself merely to self-renewal, would be like restoring a single tower in an old castle fallen into ruin. We have to build something new and for our present times, from the foundations up and overall.
I have left until last a few bees that buzz especially loudly in my own bonnet :
Above all, I am concerned with the issue of truth-telling in politics. “The People” need to be able to trust the leaders they vote into power. So the lines of communication between the leaders and the led need simply to work better, they need to be kept clean and open. If they are not, then the tools and currencies of democracy turn to dust in all our hands.
And indeed, right here in front of us and on a daily basis, they don’t work, they are not clean and clear. Present-day democratic politics is largely given over and surrendered to Hard Sell and endless Spin, dodgy sales techniques, working on “The People” rather than working with and for them, exploitative, de-humanising, deceitful, mendacious. These things are said easily and often, but nothing changes.
Truth-telling. Truth-serving. Being open and unguarded. Not speaking as a technique for misleading, evading, withholding, lying. Speaking for the sake of serving the truth, rather than serving the self, or – for that matter – the Party, as an extension of the self.
You can find the Seven Nolan Principles of Public life here on the gov.uk website. The sixth is plain and simple : “Holders of public office should be truthful.” It is simply astonishing that such a statement can be made public on the government’s own website – and simultaneously be so completely ignored by the politicians who form that government, right up to the top of the tree and perhaps especially at the top of the tree.
Thus, our own Prime Minister has been sacked twice for lying, making him justifiably unemployable anywhere. And yet, here he is, the nation’s leader.
And one of the first things he did as Prime Minister was to lie to the nation’s constitutional Head of State. And time and time again, he scratches his head and tells us more porkies. Maybe he thinks we like it. To judge by the way we voted a short while ago, he is surely right.
Very occasionally, you hear the Nolan Principles being quoted by politicians, usually obscured under the title of the Ministerial Code. And, even more occasionally, some member of the cabinet is actually stripped of his/her position, by the party’s leader, with lying cited as the reason. The latest was Damian Green, I believe. So the politicians do seem to know that it’s wrong to lie ; but only when they themselves are at the receiving end of the dishonesty. The electorate are not so lucky.
As far as the electorate are concerned, the words of the Nolan principles are empty and toothless and can be, and are, ignored all the time and with impunity.
Thus, earlier this summer, still only a few weeks ago, a large proportion of Johnson’s cabinet were trotted out to lie to the electorate on behalf of Dominic Cummings, who found the Rose Garden in Downing Street a conducive setting for further brazen lies of his own.
The incompetent and irresponsible cabal at the head of the UK’s present government are especially uninhibited with regard to the Lie. But the use of language merely to sell and obscure, defraud and deceive, rather than as a medium for truth and connection, runs through all our politics. In a sense, the Party system itself depends by its nature on making truth serve Party rather than the other way round.
I believe that it should be made a criminal offence for any elected holder of public office to seek deliberately to deny, pervert or withhold the truth, for their own or their Party’s interests. I am not alone in this belief, of course. “Democracy in Politics”, Plaid Cymru and a campaign called “Stop Lying in Politics” have all proposed the same, and there may be others.
If the Labour Party were to add its authority to these voices by making it party policy, I believe the nation would respond positively and would certainly benefit. In fact, the move would be transformative. The Law itself has given a lead on this issue, by defining perjury and making it a punishable offence. So this is do-able as well as necessary. Lying in politics is a poison and needs to become a dangerous venture for any perpetrator. Until it does, our politics and our country are diseased and debased.
For what it’s worth, I have set out the argument about lying in more detail here on this blog.
In the same piece, I have also proposed that no one should be able to enter politics who has not first worked for a significant length of time in another and very different paid occupation (though perhaps not journalism !) and each new applicant for the MP’s role must be able to prove a spotless record in that previous work, above all with regard to ethical conduct. For example, an applicant whose employment record includes being sacked for lying would be banned from any form of public responsibility, at any level, ever.