Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Does British politics need rebranding? (Part I)

Occupy London: Some people still get passionate about politics (©Max Nash/PA Wire)
On Saturday I was invited to represent Catch21 at a Bite the Ballot debate on rebranding politics at the Youth Enterprise Live event at Earls Court. The key issue was how politics could evolve to be less elitist and more appealing to people in order to create a fuller democracy, and whether young people could lead this change. The discussion was audience led and there were some very strong opinions put forward. Although by no means unanimous, there was a generally held view that politics was elitist, out of touch and needed to be seriously modified to reconnect with people.

My fellow panellist Shaun Bailey, who came from a council estate to having the ear of the PM, told the crowd “you don’t know how good you’ve got it” and came close to being heckled. He argued that compared to other, far more corrupt systems of government elsewhere in the world, we in Britain had the power to really change things for the better, but it was down to the individual to do this. The murmurs of discontent were understandable from an audience who sees the current system as synonymous with the highly stratified society we live in. When a teenager in the riots gets six months for swearing at a police officer, is it any wonder that London’s politically aware young people get mad when David Cameron backs Andrew Mitchell over pleb-gate?

Of course, both sides are correct. Politics does need to be rebranded and reinvigorated; it needs to be more representative of society, and matter more to more people. Undeniably however we are also blessed with a (relatively) uncorrupted system in which citizens can make a difference. Labour MP Gloria de Piero has conducted a study into why people ‘hate’ politicians and identified some core problems. She argued that the man in the street did not believe that politics particularly affected him, or that he could really change anything or get involved. She also said that people did not see politics or parties as representative of the public.

The latter problem is already well known; governments on both sides (but particularly on the right) are always keen to get more people from business into politics, in an attempt to break the cycle of career politicians. But how to do this? Party politics is not an overly appealing prospect for top business chiefs used to the freedom of dynamic private sector businesses. The former of Ms de Piero’s issues could simply be a matter of marketing. However I think both are symptoms of a bigger problem in our party political system.

Unfortunately, this problem is not likely to change very fast. British politics is a zero-sum game. The winner gains power for five years and has control of policy. It is therefore in the parties’ interests to do whatever they can to work against the other. Through this, complex issues are given black and white answers. Answers that should require nuance become a simple choice of ‘us versus them’; parties promise one thing, and then find that the reality makes their actions more complicated. Politicians defend their failure if they are in power, or condemn success when they are in opposition. All sides come out looking like liars.

I would obviously not make a good politician; I’m probably a bit too honest for my own good. I think if we saw a bit more honesty from politicians however, a bit more willingness to admit mistakes, and a bit more cooperation across the parties, the public may think that they are less out for self gain and more working in the interests of the country.  The effects may not be as damaging as politicians would fear: An interesting article from Matt Paris has argued how the cliché ‘a week is a long time in politics’ is only really applicable to a select clique of interested observers. For Joe Bloggs, ten years is a more appropriate length of time to judge parties on. The conclusion is that things such as ‘pleb-gate’ or departmental cock-ups like the West Coast rail franchise affair may not be noticed by the public as much as everyone in the inner circle fears. To draw a tangent, you could argue that if politicians were more down to earth and honest, they could gain more in their successes than they lost in popularity from their failures.

So we come back to the issue, and perhaps the solution – how to get more ‘ordinary’ people into politics; how to make more politics more representative and prevent the majority from feeling isolated. There seems to be cross the board agreement on this need. But neither ‘ordinary’ people nor business chiefs are going to be interested in playing the party game when it’s so messy and mired in slander.

In part two of this discussion, I will look at some more practical measures to draw in young people and the population as a whole, things like devolution, elected mayors and media. Finally I will look at how the nasty side of politics can actually be turned into a strength: Politics is exciting and you only have to look back a few decades to see how invigorated and passionate young people used to feel about politics. Maybe it could just be an issue of connecting politics with young people in a way that they find exciting and appealing. 

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1 comment:

  1. Reading your post reminds me of my own Liberal Democrat friends in London who talks about the importance of getting government closer to the people.

    While no solution is perfect, the best way to increase accountability and connect elected representative to everyday people is through an agenda of localism and devolution. Localism consists of adding elected mayors to every major city (similar to the ongoing municipal referendums) and increasing the power of city councils to ensure that people have a greater say at the local level. Devolution is probably pretty obvious and requires that Parliament grant more authority to regional assemblies. In other words, it should strengthen the British 'federacy'.

    Still, this doesn't seem to solve the problem of parties having a virtual stranglehold on policymaking. How can we remedy this problem of over-centralization? Well, while it might sound appealing to do away with principles like government confidence and cabinet responsibility, adding more dissent within Parliament and government will only exacerbate divides and make policymaking even more difficult.

    Look no further than the United States Congress and the consequences of divided government are crystal clear. Sacrificing party supremacy will only lead to gridlock and policymaking fragmentation that will frustrate every single effort at furthering a localist agenda of getting government closer to the people.

    Lastly, secession like the kind that Alex Salmond's SNP is pursuing in Scotland will not solve this problem either. Rather, secession in the Scottish case might actually play into David Cameron's hands and favor the Conservatives.

    I've written a nice little piece about this very issue on my own blog, and while union will ultimately prevail, the prospect of Scottish independence and regional control will always loom over our heads.