The Future of Politics?

The role for think tanks to take as they debate the ideas needed "for fixing the essential plumbing of our body politic"
The Future
6 November 2009

"Maintain the momentum for democratic reform", the role for think tanks to take as they debate the ideas needed "for fixing the essential plumbing of our body politic". So says IPPR's collection of essays from 7 leading think tanks on "A Future for Politics" launched Wednesday in a panel discussion of its contributors: Carey Oppenheim - IPPR, Julian Astle - CentreForum, Daniel Leighton - Demos, Sunder Katwala - Fabian Society, Neil O'Brien - Policy Exchange, Jessica Asato - Progress and Nick Bosanquet - Reform together with Minister of State for Constitutional Renewal Michael Wills.

Though released in response to a symptom, the expenses scandal and its current culmination in the Kelly report, the volume of essays' 7 authors agree that the root cause is a profound lack of democratic accountability which has deeply undermined public faith in politics. From a baseline laid by the Minister - that our representative democracy has been struggled for, is valuable and cannot be perfect, one by one they took their turns to promote their key idea to save the system: ranging from the less than ambitious suggestion of open primaries to a revival for public accusation as in ancient Athens.

More significant however is the broad consensus to be found in their essays on strengthening Parliament, increased localism and a strong majority in favour of proportional representation. Worthy ideas all.

Yet political thought without action is, like faith, a lifeless thing. And those think tanks with self confessed "umbilical cords" to Westminster lack the legitimacy to act - for the simple reason that only citizens have the authority to determine the structure of their democracy. As each panellist hinted, and the half empty room testified, the elephant was not in the room!

Expertise has a key role to play in public life, to advise the citizenry, not to command authority or cosy up to it. In this time of desperate needs the key question is not exactly what reform the Fabians propose in contrast to Demos, but whether either will be audacious enough to experiment with new types of engagement through initiatives like Power2010. Think tanks need to redirect their discussions towards ordinary people and away from the political elite, only then will the room fill up, their means reflect their ends and their faith come to life - with the renewal of British democracy.

George Gabriel works as Outreach Coordinator for Power2010 and Associate Organiser for Migrant Communities with London Citizens

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