Capture parliament to renew democracy: will Whittam Smith’s strategy work?

Andreas Whittam Smith’s radical call to seize the UK Parliament from career politicians resonates with the anger of a disenfranchised public. While it is increasingly clear that getting ‘the right people’ into ‘the right seats’ is not enough to stimulate meaningful democratic reform, these proposals could provide an important framework for disrupting the vested interests of the political and corporate elite.    

Niki Seth-Smith
10 September 2012

Andreas Whittam Smith with members of the Democracy 2015 team.

On Wednesday, Andreas Whittam Smith, founder of the Independent, announced the start of a bold new project. The Indy ran it with the title: "How you can bring our ailing democracy back to life."  We had workshopped the concept in OurKingdom late last year, calling it, provocatively, an 'impossible' idea, then going on to debate its very real possibilities. The aim is nothing less than transforming our Parliamentary democracy by seizing Parliament from professional politicians. Normal everyday people would stand as independents for one term only, with no vested interest in a political career, and use our parliament’s exceptional, sovereign power to re-write the rules and policies of government in the interests of the people.

After that we can return to party politics, a much better and genuinely democratic country.

I first talked to Whittam Smith about the project in the winter of last year. I had spent the weekend before at the St Paul's camp, which had just put up a marquee for those who needed to bed in against the cold. It was live streaming to other occupations then in full swing across the globe. Whittam Smith talked about his concern that young people were turning away from parliamentary politics and giving up on representative democracy - some identified with and were joining political movements like Occupy, a vastly greater number appeared to be switching off entirely. Why weren't the young politicals of today running for Parliament? And what kind of democracy were we heading for if this new generation abandoned all hope in institutional politics?

He was appealing to me as a young person, involved in these movements. But the project he is spearheading seeks to speak to all British citizens who are disgusted, disillusioned, or just plain uninterested in anything behind the gates of the Palace of Westminster. It’s not that Whittam Smith believes Parliament is fully functional - far from it - but that he glimpses an opportunity to transform power because the machine is so broken it has lost it moral and popular hold and can therefore be taken over from within using its own rules.

“The answer to our predicament is not to turn away from Parliament but to strengthen it,” he said in Wednesday’s launch piece. “…all the power that we citizens actually have at our disposal is in the Palace of Westminster. So that is where people who want to change things have to direct their attention.”

So how does he propose we strengthen Parliament? The key idea is to field a group of independents, "a large group of like-minded citizens", bound and pledged to leave Parliament after five years only and entrusted to support policies deliberated by the people. 

You might be thinking, we've been here before. As our politicians have staggered from scandal to scandal, trampling on the battered bones of our democracy, several ill-fated attempts have been made to harness growing anti-political sentiment in order to advance agendas for change. The Independent Network, offering support to all independents across the spectrum, was set up before the 2005 general election, a response in part to the betrayal of the Iraq invasion. At the last general election, with the MPs expenses scandal still unfolding, , 151 independents stood in English constituencies: just one was returned to Westminster. (Paul Judge's Jury Team returned none, despite considerable backing from the multimillionaire businessman). 

Whittam Smith's warm-up article to Wednesday’s launch set out clearly that the crisis of trust and legitimacy has only deepened since the country failed to deliver a majority government in 2010. He sites a YouGov survey conducted this January that found a whopping 62 per cent of respondents agreed that "politicians tell lies all the time - you can't believe a word they say". But here is the Catch 22. Independents seeking to respond to the growing anger and apathy have to weigh up their dearth of resources and organisational clout against a trump card: a claimed outsider status. An independent can say they are 'just like you'. But in saying so he or she is campaigning, and - as we all know – ‘you can't believe a word politicians say’. 

This is where the potential of the one-term idea comes in. It is a clear sign saying: “career politicians need not apply”. The promise of a comfortable peerage, the power of the whips, the cynical wooing of the electorate, all the uglifying attraction of the greasy pole, has little sway over a woman or man who is going in to do a job, and who must return to 'normal life' after it is done. In other words, it invites a different breed of political animal – you or me. This promise of one-term only must be binding. If it can be proved to be, voters might sit up and listen. The independents need not gain a majority in the next Commons – the project’s stated aim – to bring about a significant shift in culture. 

The idea appealed to me from the beginning. Anthony Barnett and I arranged a meeting with Whittam Smith to talk it over, and agreed to give our support where we could. We published an outline of the plan, and Barnett, Guy Aitchison, Aaron Peters and I responded (Peters’ is a separate piece). Barnett welcomed the challenge, seeing it as a useful 'wake-up call': "Stop winging about the system, you website intellectuals, think big and change it". At that time we were talking about how best to create a very broad alliance that could make a greater claim to represent the public than our political elite. Barnett wrote that his first reaction to Whittam Smith’s idea was “Put £10 million on the table and with some significant civic others, churches, newspapers, trade unions, charities and NGOs, and their networks, it could be done… by regular citizens, by 'We, the very pissed off'." We discussed the scale of such an operation, the need for citizen assemblies around the country, conventions, primaries, the case for deliberate over tradition polling.

So I was surprised by the claim in the launch piece that the participative policy making needed to determine the independent groups’ manifesto would "not be so difficult as it sounds". And this surprise turned to concern when I saw the call-out at the end of the piece, reproduced here in full:

If ordinary people are to reclaim politics from the party elites, ordinary people need to take action. This is how they – and you – can do so...

If you would like to be involoved in our project and participate in developing these ideas, please email the team at [email protected]

From your message, we would be grateful to learn:

a. The town or village where you live and the name of your parliamentary constituency. That will help us to plan events and meetings.

b. What you consider to be the government policies that most need redoing. That would help set the agenda for the writing of a manifesto.

c. How you would like to help. That could be either in thinking through issues or in helping to organise the process. The two tasks are equally daunting, and there is much to be done for each – for instance, in chairing meetings, setting up groups, taking notes, contacting and recruiting experts.

d. Whether you would support the principle of making a small contribution from time to time to keep the work going, a maximum of £50.

I admire Whittam Smith for putting his head down and getting on with it, in the face of us "website intellectuals". He is right that "unless a start is made now, we can never get to the point." But if you want to begin a participative process that will inspire others you need to begin with an open alliance and encourage public discussion from the start, rather than invite readers to write into a newspaper. If this is seen as a consultation or marketing ploy by the Independent, with Whittam Smith at it's head, it is likely to sink without a ripple. It is clearly the start of a process, but I would urge the project team to think hard about the difficulty of meaningful participative policy making.

Because this cuts to the heart of the project’s approach. The problem with our political system, as Whittam Smith portrays it, is not primarily policy, not ideology, but people. If we can bypass the deadly efficiency of the big three's machinery and get the right members into the Commons, with life-experience, driven by a respect for the common good, not ambition and avarice, they will use the exceptional powers of the British parliamentary system to heal it from within. It is the old idea, stretching back to Roman times and before, of the virtuous citizen redeeming the body politic.  But as Aaron Peters has set out in his OurKingdom response to the initial proposal, this plays into the popular discourse of drawing attention away from structural failings by pointing the finger at individuals as personally morally culpable – at Bob Diamond rather than the financial system that allowed the LIBOR fix to take place, at George Osborne rather than the post-crash austerity consensus.

Whittam Smith’s formulation of the policy making process does little to relieve this concern: "the purpose would be to discuss and decide what the next government should do - in detail, with expert advice, not neglecting constitutional reform, working in groups, capable of being boiled down to a series of measures that the electorate would find attractive". There is an implicit divide here between those who would be invited to “discuss and decide” and the “electorate”, but to build a people's manifesto these two constituencies must be one and the same, while “with expert advice” sounds a note of warning.

As Dan Hind has set out in his sweeping analysis of the bankruptcy of the British political class, Common Sense, asking the experts will no longer do. For it is not just the irresponsibility of politicians and bankers that brought the economy to the brink of collapse and is helping to perpetuate the crisis, but a combined and ongoing failure of the commentariat, the think-tanks, the consultants, the same 'expert class' that have been increasingly implicated as the News of the World hacking scandal has spread to encompass the bulk of our tabloid press, the Met police and the government. Just think of this week’s cabinet reshuffle. Now Jeremy Hunt has switched scandal to preside over the marketisation of England's NHS, another prime example of the sway over our democracy of the corporate sector, the business advisors and 'economic experts'.

We're back to the question Whittam Smith asked me on a wintry day last year. Why weren't the bright young politicals of today standing as MPs? Many I know would fit the model of the virtuous citizen, a few I am confident could resist the corruption of the halls of power. But the majority refute - as I would - the claim that "all the power that we citizens actually have at our disposal is in the Palace of Westminster". The lack of faith in the power of national parliaments in the face of an increasingly global political elite can be seen in the rejection of the ballot box, the turn to the streets, the seizing of public space. It is laid out in stark facts and figures in the latest Democratic Audit, the product of a three-year interrogation of British democracy that finds corporate and financial dominance in the ascendance, what the director of DA has termed the 'Unelected Oligarchy'.

After the summer lull, the hot issue will increasingly be how the new politics engages with the 2015 general elections, given the denuded power of parliament. Whittam Smith's project has the potential to be an important intervention in helping to bring together thinking on this issue between different camps: as a radical figure within the media establishment he is one of the few who could reasonably attempt this. But it won’t fix our politics. Getting the right bums on the right seats in Parliament has never been enough to bring about meaningful political change and is woefully insufficient in 2012 Britain. What it can do is encourage and facilitate an open, inclusive public conversation on how best to break the grip of an increasingly narrow, venal political elite that is an extension of corporate power. So I welcome the project, and OurKingdom will do all we can to help support this conversation over the next three years. An 'impossible idea'? Well, it has just begun. 

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