Forget parties, we need a system of 'issue based politics'

We should elect ministers directly, give them a substantial slice of votes, and combine their votes with those of other ministers, other elected representatives, and also direct votes from the public. What might this look like in practice?

Sholi Loewenthal
14 January 2015

Flickr/estherase. Some rights reserved.

One thing we have learned from the Scottish Referendum is that when people care about an issue and they know their vote will count, they turn out in numbers. It’s a blast of clarity in the run-up to the 2015 elections because it highlights just how much the current political system does not inspire enough people to turn out come election day.

And we all know why.

Party politics maintains a status quo where elected representatives are often encouraged or even coerced to vote along ‘party lines’, even when this betrays promises they have made to their constituencies. For us, the electorate, party politics offers little choice and opportunity to determine legislative outcomes. We are expected to be satisfied to choose one party to represent us on a whole range of policies, only a few of which we really subscribe to.

And it gets uglier. Having reneged on promises and compromised the well-being and prosperity of those who can achieve so much more on the basis of closed-room deals with big business or the need to be in power (as with the Lib-Dems); career politicians then distract us with emotive issues they push to the top of the agenda and with reassurances that politics is actually working perfectly well, blinding the electorate or just simply exhausting us from bothering to engage.

It is deeply troubling.

The Russell Brands of our time call for revolution. Most of us realise that revolutions have their own fundamental challenges. For example, history shows that revolutionary governments established on the basis of the pursuit of principles like a ‘fair’ and ‘equitable’ society and implemented through the disenfranchising of the political and economic elites tend to re-establish economic and political elites, often in far more serious and despairing ways.

This is because politics is not just about intent, it is about the process for great ideas to be implemented. Change needs to be transparent and accessible so that the implementation is responsive to evolving facts on the ground and accountable when the implementation goes pear-shaped. These are rarely characteristics of a revolution because revolution requires an iron fist that attempts to smash the existing system at its base.

So, whilst we need dramatic change, we also know that alongside a vision we need a process that is likely to deliver it. We need a politics that contrasts to party politics by attracting politicians who are experts on the issues and who work directly with the electorate and with their peers to develop and deliver meaningful change.

We could call this alternative to the current party-political system ‘ISSUE BASED POLITICS’ because it highlights how politics should be driven by the act of society working together through political processes to address issues meaningfully rather than politically driven by parties that confound.

An Issue Based Political Model could accommodate an enlightened step towards direct democracy whilst maintaining the advantage of representative democracy in that it gives us dedicated full-time politicians who are accountable in facilitating and delivering change.

Imagine an issue based political system where the ministers for each of the 25 or so ministerial positions could be directly elected. Take transport as an example. At the elections, there might be seven candidates presenting the public with their manifestos for transport. The candidate who receives the most votes, would become the Ministe for Transport.

You might say that ‘well, that’s not going to change much. When it comes to voting on legislation the elected ministers will be drowned out’. True. So we should also adapt the process for voting on legislation, in order to address this. Say our newly elected Transport Minister was trying to get through new transport legislation. An issue based political system could give the Transport Minister’s vote extra weight when voting on Transport related policy. For example, 35% of the decision about whether the legislation should be enacted could be decided by the one vote of the Transport Minister.

The rest of the decision about whether to pass the legislation could be made by other ministers, constituent representatives and perhaps even the electorate. For example, 25% of the decision could be made by other ministers elected to other ministerial positions, ensuring that legislation in one area of policy is worked out in a way that it is consistent with policies in other areas. A further 25% of the legislative vote could go to Parliamentarians who represent geographical constituencies (that’s also important). Then, 15% of the vote could go directly to the electorate, an injection of direct democracy so that if you really care about transport policy you could have a say and influence what happens.  

The goal here is to combine the benefits of direct democracy via public vote, pluralism via votes of other elected ministers, but also to retain the expertise and dedication of elected officials, which is absent from direct democracy. This approach also makes it really easy to hold ministers to account. Let’s say our lovely new Transport Secretary was voted into office with a manifesto to nationalise all rail services, but then—once in office—introduced legislation that further entrenched the privatisation of rail networks. It would be pretty obvious that the minister had betrayed the electorate and a robust recall system could be triggered to eject the minister from their post (of course, there’d need to be some kind of body to adjudicate on such matters). And it could go both ways. More accountable politicians will be balanced by an electorate who’d also be more accountable as they’d have 10% of the legislative vote. With a bit of cool web-tech, elected politicians could consult and collaborate directly with the electorate resulting in policy developed with grassroots and all relevant stakeholders that delivers what people want, need and that’ll actually work.

At the same time, we wouldn’t have the problem of parties trying to be everything to everyone. If the majority of people in the UK really thought that our immigration policy needed changing, well we wouldn’t be landed with a UKIP party that is broadly opaque on policies other than the EU and immigration. Instead, we’d have a bunch of candidates standing alongside Nigel Farage for the Home Office ministerial role and we would get to choose someone who champions electoral concerns but who’ll be harmless in areas where they have nothing to add. The great British electorate think that our energy policies are destroying the planet? Passionate and knowledgeable green politicians could have their day and deliver meaningful change without having to worry about the business of running our complex economy.

With our votes genuinely determining policy outcomes it is likely that a lot more of us would vote, come the elections. Not for every single ministerial position, mind you. But definitely for the ones that we care about.

The notion of issue based politics presented here is embryonic. It has own challenges that would need to be overcome if it was going to work. For example, how would budgets be set (centrally?) in a way that elected MPs had the funds required to deliver on change they’ve promised? What would happen to political parties? For the system to work would ministerial candidates have to be barred from forming alliances with one another? Also, parties have an educational role, educating the public in political issues and process. Would there be a new role for NGOs?

But these are the kinds of questions that people like you and me and politicians who believe it is time for change can explore. The real problem we have right now is that we like to moan about self-serving politicians and a disengaged electorate, when instead we ought to appreciate that as a nation we have a choice as to how we do politics. Churchill famously said “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. But democracy can be done in many ways. It’s about time we did some good old British innovation to make democracy a little ‘less worse’ than it is now.

We have just over five months until the general election. If you think we’re onto something here, get involved. Here at openDemocracy we are running a series of articles on how the paradigm of issue based politics can critique party politics and its problems like career politicians, party whips, accountability and the petty and adversarial nature of politics. If this sounds like you, get in touch! Equally, if you want to stay updated about issue based politics click here.

So, readers, what do you think? Do you think issue based politics would help sort out the problems in the country that matter to you?

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