How can we create change in the UK? An 'impossible' idea and three reactions

Could a group of like-minded citizens running for election as independents, change the UK? Andreas Whittam Smith posits an idea and three OurKingdom co-editors, Guy Aitchison, Niki Seth Smith and Anthony Barnett, respond.
Andreas Whittam Smith
8 December 2011

Could a group of like-minded citizens running for election for one term only, bring about the change career politicians can't (or won't)? Andreas Whittam Smith posits an idea and three OurKingdom co-editors, Guy Aitchison, Niki Seth Smith and Anthony Barnett, respond.

It is time to start preparing for the next general election. It will be held on 7 May 2015 if the Coalition manages to last the course. Why us? We who follow the ‘OurKingdom’ website are not a political party. We don’t do elections. They are something that the political parties do to us. Except that next time has to be different. Dissatisfaction with the political process is widespread and gathering pace.


Does the Palace of Westminster hold the key?(Photo: Flickr user Laenulfean) 

For a long time, the only sign of this was a decline of voting in general elections. Now, suddenly, there are demonstrations and protest camps. The occupation at St Paul’s Cathedral endures and is part of a worldwide phenomenon. Never mind that its target is as much capitalism as it is Westminster politics. Nor should we expect a coherent political programme to emerge from the tents. Spontaneous happenings aren’t generally capable of producing policy documents.

This street activity is essentially a warning. So also is what has recently happened to democracy in Italy and Greece. Britain’s bondholders, too, could easily become restive given the size and intractable nature of our budget deficit. That would mean a sharp rise in interest rates and a simultaneous collapse in the value of the pound on the foreign exchange markets. If that were to happen, intense pressure would be placed on our political system. It is no longer a safe assumption that politics will continue as usual.

Before turning to what concerned citizens might do in such circumstances, I want to emphasise the most important feature of our constitutional arrangements, the nature of Parliament itself. The point about Parliament as it exists, even in its unreformed state, is that it can do whatever it wants. That is the chief benefit of not having a written constitution. Parliament could, for instance, repeal the acts that ceded certain powers to European institutions. All power is in, or could be brought back to, the Palace of Westminster. And if that is where all power lies, then that is where people who want to change things have to direct their attention.

Or, more precisely, those who want to change things have to secure the election of candidates to the House of Commons who represent their views. Here we enter the realm of the near impossible. But in politics, the near impossible can happen. Perhaps the near impossible is more frequent now. Barack Obama became President. We acquired a coalition government. Unelected technocrats have just become prime ministers in Greece and Italy. So let us carefully study the near impossible.

The problem is that the entrance to the House of Commons is narrow and access difficult. The established political parties largely control elections. This is how parliamentary democracies work. It is their default mode. And in a first-past-the-post electoral system, the old parties operate with deadly efficiency. This system cannot easily be overthrown. It might, however, be interrupted.

Suppose a large group of like minded citizens who had each done something with their lives - say, had been the head of a large school or run a charity or got a new business under way - could be persuaded to stand for Parliament for one term only. They would do so as a public duty. Their task, were they elected in sufficiently large numbers, would be to put right the things that governments formed by the traditional parties had failed to resolve. And then, whether mission fully completed or not, at the end of the next Parliament these temporary MPs would stand down. That would have been one of their promises to the electorate and, I believe, part of their attraction. They would not be politicians but they would have been elected in the classic manner.

I have no idea whether anything like this could be brought about. But I do know where to start. Right here, in the OurKingdom space, by drawing on the resources of its well-informed community through on-line networking, meetings, study groups, evidence taking, weekends away and whatever else would be required. The purpose would be to discuss and decide what the next government should do - in detail, with expert advice, complete in itself, not neglecting constitutional reform, capable of being boiled down into a series of measures that the electorate would find attractive. It would be unconventional only in the sense that no difficult subjects would be avoided, everything would be upfront and open, no surprises, no hidden agenda. As conventional politics never is.

Then, as this work progressed, and more and more individuals with contributions to make were drawn into it, and news of what was being undertaken began to spread, it would become obvious whether there were people so committed to what was being proposed that they would stand for Parliament to try to carry through the programme.

Now OurKingdom rightly says of itself that it ‘works to illuminate and redress the crisis in democracy here in Britain’. Well, the crisis has just got bigger. OurKingdom helped originate and co-sponsored the Convention on Modern Liberty; it convened and supported the editors of Fight Back! A Reader on the Winter of Protest. Now I propose an even greater challenge: to write the policy for the next government.

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OurKingdom co-editor
 Guy Aitchison responds:

I’m certainly sympathetic to Andreas’s idea. The British elite stand politically, morally and ideologically bankrupt. Everywhere, there is the sense that fundamental social and political change is needed. But where will it come from? Is the solution to replace the corrupt, discredited gang now in charge with more virtuous and civic-minded citizens? I’m sceptical. Mainly, because I don’t agree that all power lies in Parliament. The “sovereignty of parliament” is a bit of a self-serving fiction. Not only does the executive dominate parliament, but, as we’re seeing across Europe, power really lies in the market. And this won’t change without a collective challenge from popular movements – “people power” to use the cliché.

Of course, the urge to turn to upright citizens in times of crisis has a long history. It goes back at least as far as ancient Rome and the role of the Dictator who was given extraordinary power to lead the republic for six month terms. Cincinatus, supposedly, was a humble farmer in Spain until he was called on to lay down his tools and lead the Roman armies during the Second Punic War.

There was similar talk after the expenses crisis too. Many people expected a surge of independent candidates. There was even a group - The Independents Network - dedicated to supporting independents and making it happen. They had Esther Rantzen and Martin Bell. They didn't get anyone elected. The grip of the cartel parties was too strong. Watching them operate, I observed a tension at work. Standing alone meant you had less support, less infrastructure to draw on and less attention. But once they started to work together the pressure to conform to the model of a political party, with all that brings, was strong. They system really does end up changing you, not vice versa.

I’m slightly wary of misplaced reverence for the moral probity and wisdom of "ordinary" citizens. Don't get me wrong. I'm sure they'd do a better job than the current lot. But the real problems, I think, aren’t so much the individual failings of MPs as the structural failings of the system itself.

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OurKingdom co-editor
 Niki Seth-Smith responds:

I am sceptical about the ability of such a group, even if elected, to affect change. However I am excited by the possible ripple effect caused by the very act of bringing together such a group.

My scepticism hinges on your statement that 'All power is in, or could be brought back to, the Palace of Westminster'. The economic crisis has accelerated the erosion of national sovereignty and exposed this reality/process to the public. The Occupy movement is part of a wider dismissal of parliamentary politics rooted not only in the feeling that the system is 'out of touch' and broken, but also in the sense that the power of governments is dwindling and increasingly irrelevant. There's no use looking to government, it is the global unelected oligarchy (to use David Beetham's term) who have the power.

However I'm excited by the idea as a prefigurative one. Again, Occupy I think has tapped into the appetite for 'being the change you want to see': the movement may not be effective ultimately in forcing through its demands; I feel its real importance lies in its existence as a working democratic network: a crack in the all-encompassing TINA ideology that in turn highlights the undemocratic nature of the institutions around us. Perhaps the presence of members of parliament who were not at all interested in their career, point-scoring or following the party line, could create a similar 'crack', through which a light might shine and expose the political class in all their gruesome glory. But I can only think that you're alluding to MPs, and how could they effectively represent their constituents without being sucked into the system? What would happen after the one term is up? 

It's a fascinating proposition. Whether or not it's possible or desirable, it would certainly open up a debate I feel needs to be had.


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OurKingdom co-editor
 Anthony Barnett responds:


Well, this is a challenge! I like challenges and I like this wake up call. Stop winging about the system you website intellectuals, think big and change it. 

My first reaction 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. Not by OurKingdom but, and this is your point Andreas, by regular citizens, by “We, the very pissed off”.

Independent individuals trying to upturn constituency representation will not do it. As Guy points out this was tried in the last election at the height of the expenses scandal with derisory results and also Paul Judge’s Jury Party of candidates pledged to a deliberative alternative, got nowhere. Your suggestion is a better one. Create in advance a form of citizens’ political and constitutional convention, taking place over a year using the internet to ensure openness and legitimacy, and then have candidates – chosen by open primary in each constituency - pledged to go into the Commons for one term only, to carry it out.

The most important thing about this idea is that it is not as crazy as it sounds. The fact that it could succeed says a lot about where we are, and I want to respond to this.

First, to return to the scheme and tweak it slightly. I would not rule out politicians some of whom want genuine change joining in the debate and running in the open primaries in their or another constituency. The point is they would have to pledge to end their career in parliament after that one term. I think we’d want a legal document on the lines of “If I win, serve a full term change my mind and stand again, then openDemocracy will get my house or its market value if I sell it beforehand” so it isn’t a mere matter of people ‘keeping their word’. Because, as we know, the system works to undermine trust.

A commons full of MPs who are not looking forward to being politicians and winning the next election, whose mandate is liberated by its brevity to deliver change, could deliver change. The power of the whips, the patronage system, the clerks, procedural convention, indeed all the machinery whereby the executive and the deep state controls the Commons, would wither due to the simple fact that its MPs would not give a damn as they can’t have a political career.

But it would only work if the “unconventional” process you describe in which “no difficult subjects would be avoided, everything would be upfront and open, no surprises, no hidden agenda” itself succeeded beforehand. If it did, the candidates would really become “the people’s candidates”, and if we all knew, that we all knew that they represented us, they would win in large numbers.

Yes, I know that there would be others running against them and huge differences within the process, as emotions are unleashed. If it looks that it might succeed, UKIP and Liberal Democrats would try and join, as well as socialists and, as you say, capitalists – nothing escapes the past lightly.

But to work, above all it needs an unlikely alliance, of the Church of England and the Quakers (little love lost there) sitting down with Unite and the Countryside Alliance and Greenpeace and saying, ‘If we don’t sort this out, no one will’.

In other words, the prequel to your Parliament of Independence has to be an even wilder equivalent of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, a civic, web-based, face-to-face, street-to-street convention, that is not about running our own micro-affairs but sorting out the system, over time, fairly and in a practical way. But instead of asking them to devolve power to us, we will plan how power should be organised.

We will also have to debate principles, like human rights, and the power of judges, and these issues will then need to be debated and decided in your Parliament of Independents, which would become in effect an actual constitutional convention, only covering he whole framework of modern government, from the control of data to the nature of our health and education systems. 

Also, and this is another very important aspect of the larger ‘breakdown’ (one I discussed here looking at the end of an epoch of Charter 88 style reform) the Westminster parliament does not have power over health and education in Scotland. Scotland has its own parliament and it is one that is growing in legitimacy and self-belief. Thus your Parliament of Independents will in effect be an English Parliament. I’d welcome this because it will be multi-racial, naturally, and thus break the political identification of Englishness with being white and racially exclusive. Be warned, however, this will generate irrational opposition amongst precisely the reasonable, professional classes you seem to think will lead the way in our discussions. 

Broad brush, that’s how to do it: gather forces that bring resources and release energy. Everyone will be nervous, fretful and fearful, this is not a moment of optimism, but they might be motivated to do something like this by the fear that not doing it will be worse. For, as you say, “It is no longer a safe assumption that politics will continue as usual”.

Indeed, Andreas, it is a safe assumption that it won’t, probably can’t. This is not just the probability that UKIP will overtake the Lib Dems as Peter Oborne has predicted, or that Scotland may vote for independence, or that bond-holders may take fright as you suggest. (On this, by the way, a remarkable speech by David Miliband shows that it is the Bank of England that is buying government stock and keeping interest rates low thanks to quantitative easing. The whole thing may be a very high-risk contrivance.) There is also the crisis of the Euro. If it survives as a fiscal union, Britain is marginalised and our political elite will divide in fury. If it collapses, as you say it will in an eloquent article today, so will our economy. If it just drags on there will be no growth and social decomposition. At the moment there isn’t an option that can secure a future for the British system that I can see.

But at the same time there is a disenchantment taking place across what I’ll call the ‘officer class’. It’s not just popular anger that matters, a historic settlement is losing its hinterland.

Now, in addition, there is the rise of the Occupy movement and its demand for a fundamental reorganisation of a system stolen by corporate interests.

What matters with proposals like yours, is not whether they are nice in principle or whether rational people can see they are needed in practice. If the regime believes in itself, sees a future for itself, and can generate enough growth to retain the loyalty of its followers and buy off or at least divide its critics, then forget it.

These conditions may no longer apply. An opening does seem to be taking place – it looks like a chasm, it sounds like a earthquake, but it could be, as you say, the door to a democratic pathway out of the mess.

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