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About Alexandra Runswick

Articles by Alexandra Runswick

This week's editor

“Phoebe

Phoebe Braithwaite is openDemocracy’s submissions editor.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Northern Ireland provides just one of many loopholes for dark-money to flow into British elections

It's not just Northern Ireland's dodgy party donation rules that need an overhaul - across the UK, privacy prevails.

Britain needs a strong lobbyist register - one that would cover NewsCorp's Frederic Michel

This week’s revelations as to the extent of Murdoch’s influence on the UK government point again to the urgent need for a robust statutory register of lobbyists. Unlock Democracy is calling on the government to beef up their proposals, to ensure these kinds of backdoor dealings are exposed in future.

The Battle for Britishness

Alexandra Runswick (Unlock Democracy): The USA has life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. France has liberty, equality and fraternity. What is the equivalent British set of values? Does it matter if we don’t know? Is it somehow un-British to even ask? These were just some of the issues raised in the RSA  and Heritage Lottery Fund lecture Britishness – a values based approach is not enough.

The proposed Statement of British Values has been one of the more hotly debated aspects of the Governance of Britain agenda. While there is growing consensus about the need for a Bill of Rights, response to the BSV project as it is apparently known, has been lukewarm at best. Much of the debate has focused on the government’s decision to use a deliberative process, a Citizens' Summit, rather than what values might make it into the statement.

Beware of the Leopard

Alexandra Runswick (Unlock Democracy): I have been more than a little sceptical about the government’s plans for a citizen’s summit on the proposed British Statement of Values. I was worried it might be like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where Arthur Dent discovers that the plans for the demolition of his house had been on display for nine months; it’s just that they were on display in a cellar without any lights, at the bottom of a locked filing cabinet, stuck in a disused lavatory, with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard." So yes, you can be engaged in the policy making process just as long as you are and-picked by a polling company, the government then determines the subject matter, how long the conversation will last and whether the conversation will be followed up by any action. 

How much do you value your rights and freedoms?

Alexandra Runswick (London, Unlock Democracy): In resigning his seat and forcing a by-election, that's the question David Davis has been asking us over the past week. Regardless of whether this was the best way to do it, it is a pertinent question and one which needs to be answered.

Unlock Democracy, and Charter 88 before it, have spent 20 years campaigning for democracy, rights and freedoms. We have been appalled, not just by Gordon Brown's plans to extend the amount of time individuals can be detained by the state without charge to 42 days, but at the way he intends to do it. This policy was not mentioned in Labour's manifesto. In the face of a backbench rebellion, the government only got this legislation through the House of Commons by the slimmest of margins. Now they could bypass the House of Lords completely through use of the Parliament Act.

No country that prides itself on being a democracy should be able to abolish fundamental human rights without cross-party consensus. No responsible government should seek to do so in the first place.

So we agree with David Davis that the time has come to draw a line in the sand. Fundamental to that is to make the case for a Bill of Rights and, ultimately, a written constitution to limit the powers of the state.

The by-election in Haltemprice and Howden is a battle we cannot afford to not get involved in. As a non-aligned organisation, Unlock Democracy will not endorse Davis or indeed any candidate, but we do intend to take the fight for rights and freedoms to the streets of Hull and the East Ridings.

We need your help to do this.

Over the past few days we have been working out a campaign strategy. We intend to:

  • Distribute a newspaper to every household in the constituency;
  • Hold a public meeting;
  • A street stall in every town.

To pull this off in the timescale we have, we need £5,000. If everyone receiving this blog today made just a small contribution, we could raise this money with ease.

For this reason I am asking you to make a contribution of £20 today. Of course, if you can afford £100 or £1,000, we aren't going to stop you! If you value your rights and freedoms and want to take a stand, please do make a donation.

Party Funding White Paper Defies Belief

Alexandra Runswick (Unlock Democracy): Today Jack Straw has overseen the publication of the White Paper on Party finance and expenditure in the United Kingdom. As someone who has spent the last four years working on party funding reform I’m more interested than most in these proposals. Recent media reports had suggested a certain degree of back tracking but these proposals underwhelmed even my limited sense of expectation.

This white paper is a whitewash. It’s policy-lite and neatly sidesteps all of the difficult decisions that the government has supposedly been thinking about making. Fear not dear reader, you can read the white paper without any danger of being assaulted by anything that so much as resembles a controversial or radical decision. This is a wasted opportunity that will haunt future governments, inflict yet more avoidable funding scandals on the public and in so doing alienate them still further.

The history of party funding reform is littered with weighty tomes on how to clean up politics: from the Houghton Committee in 1976 to the Neil Committee report in 1998, the Electoral Commission report in 2005, the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee investigation into party funding in 2006 and finally after the cash for peerages allegations in 2007, the Sir Hayden Phillips inquiry into the funding of political parties. If any of these passed you by, they all get name checked and reviewed in the white paper. So much so that most of it is a history of how we got to where we are; there is remarkably little on where we go from here. While the long-overdue proposals to beef up the Electoral Commission's role, are to be welcomed, this is in itself a minor reform. The rest of the paper is a muddled mix of excuses for not taking action and even proposals to go backwards.

Jack Straw spoke of the need for consensus, both among the political parties. Well the public has supported caps on donations for some time, polls have repeatedly this, suggesting that two-thirds of the public would support limits to donations. And while I would like there to be agreement between the parties on party funding reform, I find it fascinating that the government is happy to legislate for 42 day detention in the face of opposition from across the political spectrum, but won’t introduce a measly cap on donations. Clearly it’s one rule for abolishing civil liberties and another for proposals that affect party finances.

Independent (and even semi-independent) investigations into party funding invariably recommend change. Sometimes the prescription differs but more recently there has been a degree of consensus about caps on donations and incentivised support of small donations such as tax relief, with matched funding for non-tax payers. The Neill Committee recommended tax relief for small donations and this was the one recommendation that was not implemented in 2000. The Electoral Commission repeated this call in 2005 (in a report that the government didn't even deign to respond to), as did the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee in 2006. At each stage party interests intervene.

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