Changing politics

Pledges for Progress from the Institute of Ideas
Dolan Cummings
12 February 2010

There's a feeling in the air ahead of the forthcoming general election. But it isn't change that's in the wind so much as exhaustion. Whatever comes next, there is a palpable sense that the old political order has come to an end. Something's wrong, though. While Tory activists might be looking forward to getting out on polling day to vote the old shower out and the new Conservatives in, there is little enthusiasm in wider society for the main alternative on offer. Some of us were unimpressed by New Labour back in 1997, and with good reason, but there was a mood of excitement about that election that Cameron and co seem unlikely to replicate even if they win comfortably. Today it is not just the government that seems exhausted, but the whole political class. 

Of course, the proximate cause for the current sense of crisis in British politics is the expenses scandal, which has damaged all parties, and seemingly revealed our MPs as unprincipled bounders. Not only are they unable to offer a convincing way out of the dire economic situation, or to summon up an inspiring vision for the future of Britain, but it turns out our supposed leaders have been fiddling their expenses too. For some, the widespread public disgust with the political class represents an opportunity for lasting change. The POWER2010 initiative is an attempt to make the most of this opportunity by putting forward clear and specific proposals informed by public deliberation and consultation. 

For me, some of the ideas currently being put to the vote, such as scrapping the database state or introducing proportional representation (currently the two most popular, in fact) are commendable, while others, like compulsory politics lessons in school or caps on political donations, actually threaten the spirit of democracy. What's important, however, is that the arguments are had out. In that sense, POWER2010 is unequivocally a good thing, contributing to the wealth of public debate. 

The Institute of Ideas is taking a different approach, however, in our Pledges for Progress, to be launched ahead of our pre-election public summit, The Battle for Politics, in London on Saturday 20 March.

First of all, we haven’t deliberated or consulted with anyone apart from our colleagues! Instead, we have identified the key issues that we believe ought to be on the political agenda, and on which basis we would be willing to back candidates. These range from restoring the civil liberties revoked by successive governments to building new nuclear power stations, freeing universities to pursue knowledge for its own sake, and opening the borders.

Some might be popular, others less so, but we believe politics has to begin with somebody putting forward an idea and fighting for it in public. And while we find ourselves grasping at straws in an effort to find something to agree with in the utterances of the main parties, the pledges we put forward will be ideas we can really get behind, and we look forward to debating them with others at the summit and beyond.

On one level, the two approaches represented by POWER2010 and the Battle for Politics are simply different but complementary – and the more different forms of political debate going on, the better. But they also perhaps reflect differing assessments of the current situation, and conflicting ideas about where the problem lies.

Of course, people were arguing for constitutional reform long before the expenses scandal broke, and nobody is naïve enough to believe it was duck houses and flipping that broke British politics. But those who focus on the need to reform our democratic institutions see the expenses scandal as an expression of a deeper malaise in the political system itself, arguing that the solution is greater democratic openness and accountability. While those are worthwhile things on their own terms, however, there is reason to believe the crisis in politics is a consequence of a wider societal crisis.

It is surely no coincidence that the crashing of the political system comes less than a generation after the end of the Cold War, and the demise of the traditional ideologies of left and right. The rise and fall of New Labour has shown that moving on to a new kind of politics is easier said than done. Lacking a coherent worldview or meaningful principles beyond such platitudes as fairness, opportunity and hope, the political class is left looking purposeless as well as gormless. Public anger about our MPs misbehaviour surely expresses a deeper frustration about their apparent uselessness.

Reform of our democratic institutions is no doubt long overdue, but it must also be informed by a thorough reappraisal of what politics is for. The danger is that in the current anti-politics mood, with calls for MPs to be cut down to size and made accountable to unelected commissions and judges, we will effectively downsize democracy in keeping with the diminished horizons of today's political class. If instead we can rediscover a purpose for political representation – that is, popular power­ – in pursuit of a better society, the kinds of change we want might look very different. 

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