Graham Allen says it as it is

The long time Labour MP for Nottingham North issues a bitter, swinging assessment of the pernicious collusion of government and media that is strangling parliamentary democracy in Britain
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
24 November 2009

Graham Allen MP has tried harder, with more patience and less thanks, to get Labour to embrace genuine democratic reform than perhaps any other member of his Party, not to speak of his fellow MPs. Now, as yet another Committee reports on how the Commons could be reformed, ePolitix has just published his stark, bitter reflection, asking whether we need (or deserve) a parliament at all. Here it is in full:

Parliament is sick and decaying - and neither the government nor the media want it to recover.

A strong parliament would challenge their current duopoly of political power.

It would force government - any government - to rule more competently, more truthfully and more creatively.

It would force the media to meet the same standards when they report British politics and reclaim from the media their current self-appointed role in holding government to account and their right to select the make-or-break issues for our political leaders.

Parliament is not fit for purpose. Parliament is in its allowances pickle because government has taken it over and controls it lock, stock and barrel.

Government sets parliament's agenda, selects membership of parliament's committees and uses it as a rubber stamp.

Government is the unelected incubus which needs parliament only in order to cloak itself in its electoral legitimacy. Policy innovations, holding to account, balancing government power, securing value for money all these functions are no longer in the legislature's remit, and haven't been for many decades.

Before the expenses scandal few MPs understood the bit-part nature of their role.

However, all three party leaders whom we slavishly follow nightly into the voting lobbies have returned that loyalty by allowing all MPs to be fed to the insatiable media wolves, irrespective of their innocence.

Now MPs understand all too well how dispensable they are.

Living on the status of being an MP, or sublimating their desires into working hard at being a glorified councillor will no longer be enough, a more serious role needs to be carved out for Parliament.

Governments have consciously reinforced this subordination by keeping pay low and concealing income behind allowances.

There is no excuse for exploiting this system as many did, but it was all powerful government that injected fundamental dishonesty into the system over several decades refusing the recommendations of independent pay reviews.

Ironically the weakness of parliament is now such that MPs are unable to resist being rescued by the very institution that has enfeebled them.

Government is posing as "cleaning up the mess" which it created, by ever larger doses of centralised control, and ever stronger chains around a hollow parliament.

The media meanwhile can stay locked in its political tango with government - a love/hate relationship, but the only one in town.

Although the media have joined the clamour for a clean-up, the last thing they want is for a clean-up to succeed.

A weak, despised parliament suits them only too well. They can win readers and audiences with eye-catching stories of scandals over expenses.

These stories have two great advantages - they are easy to understand and, more important, they do not challenge the power structure on which the media are parasites.

"Greedy MPs" fill and sell newspapers and news programmes and free the media from the obligation to report big-picture stories like global recession, multi-billion bank bailouts, climate change, public finance.

Such stories require serious analysis, and all too frequently their reporting threatens the power and reputation of major corporate and other special interests - including owners of media themselves.

When government and media together are happy to collude in the continued collapse of parliament it is not surprising that there is so little public pressure for serious reform of our politics, for a new clearly defined role for parliament and MPs.

Government and media prefer to divert the public with the superficialities of tinkering with allowances or prosecuting individuals (though not of course those who steal MPs' financial records).

Neither want the public to hear about the possibility of a written constitution, or a definition (let alone separation) of powers.

Neither seek debate on whether our government should be directly elected by the people, or the media's "guilty until proven innocent" presumption challenged.

Transparency is a convenient concept when it produces prurient tittle-tattle about the petty mistakes and pathetic misjudgements of MPs, but is not something that is allowed to apply to government and the media or to their gross abuse of power.

Similarly the concept of the rule of law can be prayed in aid to whip up a lynch mob, yet it is strangely absent when offences are invented retrospectively and applied to unpopular minorities such as MPs.

It is difficult to see a way forward. The very power and influence which need to be exercised for liberty lie entrenched in the hands of those who benefit most from its corruption.

A government which failed to make the clean start it was offered two years ago, an opposition devoid of a democratic philosophy even before the attrition of governing takes its toll.

Media gleeful in their irresponsibility, happy to prey on the weaklings in Parliament, willing to sting and wound government and the political classes but not to sever their symbiotic relationships.

MPs still on their knees. These are not the building blocks of a modern democracy. These shoddy actors, playing in a worn-out but still profitable drama, are not going to write the script for a modern democracy, in which they might have to cede the stage to voters and their elected representatives.

Nonetheless a manifesto for change needs to be set out if it is to be heard in those few fleeting moments that are not drowned out by government and the media. The media feeding frenzy has rightly destroyed the pretence of parliamentary power. It was not honest and did not deserve to live.

The danger is that the end of the myth of parliamentary sovereignty and the revelations of the naked authority of government and media may not be enough to keep our demoralised democratic culture together. Neither prime ministers nor media owners or opinion formers are directly elected to their roles.

Those who are - including MPs and local councillors - have acquiesced in the withering of grass roots politics and local activism.Democratic legitimacy itself is looking threadbare, even unnecessary.

The tiny battered groups of British democrats of all parties must form a square and keep some democratic truths alive. The British people should have their parliament.

It should elected, it should be strong, independent and be part of a broader democratic settlement, based on the secret ballot and written rules.

Without that, and without the people being properly represented, the blood sports of our modern media could spill out of the editorials and onto the streets.

The government and media should not leave it until then to promote a sensible debate on how we rebuild our democracy.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


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