From anger into change

The scandal over MPs' expenses has opened up a once-in-a-generation opportunity for democratic reform of the British state
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
9 July 2009

The scandal over MPs' expenses has opened up a once-in-a-generation opportunity for democratic reform of the British state. But can public outrage transform into a creative and intelligent demand for change? Anthony Barnett explores the history behind the current crisis and maps out the challenges for democrats and some of the possible ways forward.

It was in 1976 that the office of No 10 was first criticised as an ‘elective dictatorship'. Thirty years later and now the Prime Minister hasn't even been elected to his supreme position, while his First Secretary of State, and arguably the most powerful member of the Cabinet, sits in the Lords. So too do six other Ministers. Perhaps we should be grateful that at least his constituents voted for Gordon Brown to be an MP. Such is the way we are now ruled.

It is putting our democracy, and perhaps British politics itself, at risk. A symptom of this is mass abstention. In last month's Euro election only one voter in eleven voted Conservative and this made them the winners! (One in eighteen voted Labour).

The combination of a weakened democracy and strengthened executive is very dangerous, as, to take just one notable example, our liberties themselves are imperilled by an extraordinary expansion of surveillance and controls that is permitted by the spinelessness of a suborned parliament. This is far from the only area where the controlling instinct of an over-centralised state constantly lobbied by vested interests and unchecked by countervailing power is doing great harm, think of what the City has got away with. Critical coverage in the media has helped limit the damage. But for all its welcome noise this is not much more than the proverbial dogs barking at the caravan.

At last there are signs of a breakthrough. The expenses outrage has aroused the public from its lethargy. The awakening was long overdue. Larger scandals, from the financial crash to mendacious wars, were the real weight that broke the public's trust. The exposure of MPs' house flipping, moat cleaning and attitude of entitlement were just the last straw. Today, voters desire for change could prove irresistible - provided it can gain and retain its full voice.

But the political class is showing every sign that it thinks it can isolate and manage the anger. After calling for more individual empowerment David Miliband, on 6 July, contemptuously referred to the "immediate needs for political and economic crisis-therapy", a term implying that health means returning politics to normal.

He grants that there also needs to be some people's "empowerment". David Cameron also talks up direct democracy and empowering "the powerless". But the signs are that both seek to reproduce rule from above modernised by easily managed hi-tech populism; an approach that points voters back towards submissive catalepsy.

There will, finally, be a general election within a year. It could well prove to be yet again a fight between the two main parties for control over the dictatorial authority of the British state, now as ‘modernised' by New Labour, with total victory once more provided by a minority of the vote. Then, like all undemocratic power, whoever gains it is likely to continue to protect it through a mixture of top down controls and populist manipulation serviced by a narrow and venal political elite. While if the electorate feels there is no realistic offer of a choice to open up the system, continuing negative feedback of massive abstention will confirm popular revulsion yet make the problem worse.

Many are working on how to prevent such an outcome, including a new network around Real Change of which I am member. Its view is that the most important need is for members of the public to self-organise and make their views heard and influential. To be effective, all calls for change need shape, focus and leadership. But this time the driving force must be the public not elite calculation.

I am writing this post to share the challenge of what approach to take to best unlock this energy - and light the positive fuse of popular discontent in a way that can be effective. We want to be represented by MPs who are honest and independent and who support a transparent and open government that checks executive power, protects our liberties and provides for more direct citizen say. Long experience shows this is a matter of altering the way we are ruled not just the people who rule us. The aim, therefore, should be for a British version of a velvet revolution, a great reform process that renews our political system as a whole.

We are in a novel situation and not one determined by the ‘swing of the pendulum' and the usual suspects. To rescue democracy and the rule of law in the era of new technology we can draw on a tradition of protest, insurgency and invention. The principles that none should be jailed without charge and all should be judged by their peers, go back to Magna Carta. It was in Putney, then outside London, where a Leveller proclaimed that "the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he" and thereby made the first recorded claim for political equality in a large nation whatever our economic and social differences, which is the foundation of contemporary democracy. To defend this legacy is to protect a spirit of innovation. Modern liberty and democracy, open to deliberation and participation, should be our aim, if we wish to restore the tradition that has given us our rights and freedoms.

As a general aspiration all this is very fine. The question is how. People are asking, ‘what can I do?' Everyone wants something that could work and not another protest. We don't need wake up calls any more! We need a way of delivering change. Here is an overview of the suggestions already being put forward.

1. Take a single issue like electoral reform and demand a referendum on it at the same time as the election, as the key issue that will open up change. This is the approach of Vote for Change. The attraction is simplicity and audacity. If such a referendum is held, won and implemented then at a stroke the old party system is broken and voters will be counted fairly - what could be more important for democracy? The drawbacks with such a call is that it is aimed at a Labour government which seems to lack the credibility to pass the legislation. Also, an incoming Conservative government may not feel bound by the outcome of the referendum and is likely to be committed to David Cameron's ideas of non-proportional changes to the electoral system. If a referendum succeeds and PR is introduced it will create a more pluralist and representative Commons, but on its own will it be enough and can it attract enough public support?

2. Generate a set of basic pledges for change that are then taken to all candidates to create a reforming parliament. The basic thinking here is that we know the changes we want, the main issue is how to make them happen. Such pledges will draw in a wide alliance, as they could include a referendum on Europe, local government that has financial power, open primaries and more direct participation. The candidates then commit and voters will know who to choose. A drawback is that to be short and appealing the pledges can mean different things to different politicians. It's not clear how delivery is ensured even if candidates are elected. How will all the commitments translate into the necessary parliament majorities given how the system ‘works'?

3. Meet, Deliberate, have a convention, Decide, Influence, Elect and hold to account starting with 1,000 meetings around the UK in pubs or living rooms or as part of discussions in existing networks. This is the original Real Change proposal. It's very ambitious. Its advantage is the hope of considerable popular deliberation, wide public argument, a growing movement and the intellectual excitement of building a novel ‘open politics network'. Its drawbacks are how to deliver the influence it seeks. The pledge policy suffers from the same drawbacks as No 2. In this case it risks being seen as prejudging the outcome of what is declared to be an open, deliberative process.

4. Get Parliament to pass an Act empowering a citizens deliberative convention to decide on a set of major reforms. A Bill exists to do this created by Unlock Democracy with support at the moment of just over 100 MPs, half a dozen of them Tories. Its strength is that parliament is too tribal and self-interested to change the system and this takes reform out of its hands, into those of regular people. It is also simple. But without popular support from outside parliament any such process will be still-born. And how can public support be inspired for the creation of something which then takes all the interesting decisions? Also, lobbying for such a proposal reproduces dependency on MPs.

5. Launch a campaign to "Take back our parliament" This would focus on how it represents us (proportionality, open primaries), its honesty (transparency), defending our liberties (independence), its funding (no corruption). All the big themes thread through this approach including the role of Europe and the need for real local government so that MPs have the time to scrutinise legislation rather than be welfare officers for their constituents. Its advantage is a simple ‘cry' and an appeal to our traditional form of democracy. A disadvantage is that such a call is unlikely to appeal to those, many of whom are under 30, who are engaged by issues of our democracy, rights and liberty but find parliament as an institution remote and uninteresting.

6. Bring about a network of independent candidates committed to implementing a reform agenda. If this was combined with a strong Liberal Democrat presence it could produce a hung parliament and forge a reforming administration. But if the independent candidates are not a new political party they will need to be locally based. How can this be organised? The financial costs are also considerable. The odd thing here is why the Lib Dems are seen so widely as part of the system rather than a force for fundamental change.

7. Organise an on-line force for change on the lines of MoveOn in the US. This is the approach adopted by 38 degrees who launched conveniently into the expenses scandal and found themselves somewhat to their surprise calling for changes in the way we are governed as their first campaign. The advantages of this modern and fast approach is that it can grow very fast. A disadvantage is the risk of being seen as chasing urgent issues and being very centralised. We know it can work when those involved by it represent something inside a large party. But can it work to change a very large country?

Just to read this list is to see one danger: the energy and desire for reform gets dispersed in different initiatives and is frittered away. I support Vote for Change and Unlock Democracy and 38 degrees. And they also seek to reinforce each other. But is it enough to arouse strong and independent public support that is not limited to this or that campaign or party?

Hitherto I have keenly advocated tying candidates down as soon as possible and then holding their feet to the fire (option 3). But the initial discussions amongst those involved with Real Change lacked traction. Before we can debate with credibility the tactics of delivery we need to know there is a shape-shifting force of opinion outside parliamentary politics in the first place.

The prospect of an imminent election next year definitely makes things urgent. What is needed now is to build a demand for change in a way that is inventive captures the imagination of wide sections of the public, encourages open self-organising protest, and brings in the very large civil society associations and faith groups whose members are appalled at what is going on. We have a chance in the run up to the election to create a force of opinion that cannot be ignored and shames the political class with the variety and creative intelligence of the British people.

How exactly will such demand turn into delivery? We don't know yet. It could be through one of the strategies set out above, or a combination of them. Or it could be through new moves that we haven't thought of yet and won't know until they happen. Thus Tim Garton Ash, who is on the Real Change steering committee proposes a Democracy Commission that is half parliament and half human to translate the demand for change into legislation.

My view is that we shouldn't focus on the mechanisms of final delivery. The priority is to turn popular anger into impetus. This is the hard part. The political system is designed to disperse popular dissent into harmless fragmentation.

But our leaders know that the game is nearly up. At the height of the expenses scandal the Independent carried a spread in which the three main party leaders competed with each other to say they were the ones who would lead a huge democratic change in the system. Gordon Brown said he was a longtime supporter of Charter 88 and wants a written constitution. David Cameron pledged to give "power to the powerless". Nick Clegg, who has always called for the system to be replaced but backed the view that it was not a priority for voters, suddenly declared that everything had to be done in 100 days.

Each in their way was aware that what was once a mighty Establishment rooted in British institutions and supported by mass parties, had shrivelled into a narrow political class. You could smell their fear of losing their claim to leadership as the populace howled with derision. Yet they also played for time: we are on your side they said, like all good therapists. Now go back to your "real lives".

In this situation, if voter discontent can be given effective expression it will have the legitimacy and the media support to insist on real change. The most difficult problem, the one that demands organisation and invention, is how to bring people together so that each can see that they are not alone, their anger is healthy and justified and not in need of therapy.

This is the problem Real Change is attempting to solve. The idea is to start to draw people together in a process that is exciting and interesting. If we can then hold a convention that demonstrates the urgency and importance of the issues our parliament has failed to tackle, we can change the terms of political debate and rid Britain of its new corruption.

The starting point, we suggest, is as simple and as modest as talking to someone else about what needs to happen in a way that adds up across the country and is connected to profound and well-thought out arguments. It is up to us to start the democratic process, both in terms of leadership and public participation, that parliament has failed to deliver. How can this best be done? We must make a beginning and find out fast. If you believe you have a stake in this, please join Real Change.

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