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The Power inquiry: making politics breathe

Ferdinand Mount
28 February 2006

Does it really matter if people don't vote? Why should we worry if some of us prefer to sink into a sudoku or watch the sushi bar go round rather than turn out on a wet Thursday night to choose between two candidates we have never heard of? Could it even be a signal of general contentment that joining political parties has become such an esoteric hobby? Perhaps there is even an old Chinese proverb which says "Happy is the country with a low turnout".

There have been times when I shared this indulgence towards political apathy. I even had a soft spot for that anarchist slogan of the 1960s "Don't vote, it only encourages them". (The currently suspended mayor of London, dear old Ken Livingstone, dreamed up a variant for his 1987 book title: "if voting changed anything, they'd abolish it".)

But increasingly I have been driven, rather reluctantly, to the conclusion that political apathy is not such an innocent phenomenon. It has consequences – and victims.

The Power inquiry, an independent investigation into the condition of democracy in Britain, was set up in 2004. The members of its commission (chaired by Helena Kennedy) hosted meetings around Britain and heard submissions from a wide variety of interest groups, professionals, and concerned citizens. The commission published its report on 27 February 2006:

"After eighteen months of investigation, the final report of Power is a devastating critique of the state of formal democracy in Britain. Many of us actively support campaigns such as Greenpeace or the Countryside Alliance. And millions more take part in charity or community work. But political parties and elections have been a growing turn-off for years.

The cause is not apathy. The problem is that we don't feel we have real influence over the decisions made in our name. The need for a solution is urgent. And that solution is radical. Nothing less than a major programme of reform to give power back to the people of Britain..."

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When little more than 20% of the electorate has voted for the winning party, as in the United Kingdom general election of May 2005, legitimacy begins to drain away. If only just over half of us bother to vote at all in national elections and scarcely a third in local elections, the bureaucracy begins to think of elections as a tiresome and increasingly insignificant interruption in its continuous exercise of power. What develops is something that Britain's foreign secretary Jack Straw calls (approvingly, I am astonished to say) "executive democracy" and the Conservative politician Lord Hailsham more rudely described in 1976 as "elective dictatorship".

And if the political parties attract only a tiny fraction of the members they used to, then the pool from which our political leaders are recruited shrinks to a puddle. Our representatives cease to be representative. Look how the working classes have largely disappeared both from the constituency parties and from the House of Commons.

For this political withering away is not inflicted equally across the nation. The most striking declines are to be found in the voting patterns of the young, the poor and some of the ethnic minorities. The worst off are beginning to disappear from the political radar. Apathy entrenches political inequality. Those who have most to complain of tend to complain the least. Resentment and despair drain out of conventional politics to well up in less manageable, more dangerous forms of social action.

In any case, the contentment alibi just does not wash. Every opinion poll on the subject shows that the non-voters do not stay away because they are happy with their lot. They stay away because they believe that voting won't make a blind bit of difference.

Over the past few months even Britain's politicians have woken up to the fact that something is badly wrong. Reforming the political system may be a subject for political anoraks, but when it is raining this hard, anoraks are what you need. The department of constitutional affairs contains a whole section under Harriet Harman trying to devise ways of making politics attractive again. The new Conservative Party leader David Cameron has set up one of his task forces under Kenneth Clarke with much the same remit.

One problem, five proposals

Not for the first time the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust are ahead of the game. Just as when Seebohm Rowntree first poured some of his chocolate money into investigating housing and poverty a century ago, so his York-based successors have generously sponsored an inquiry into how to make British politics live and breathe again. For the past year an eclectic bunch on the Power commission (including me) have been travelling Britain and listening to all sorts of people in and out of politics, including cabinet ministers and professors of politics but with special attention to the powerless and the alienated.

The guts of our commission's diagnosis is that British politics remains designed for an age that has gone, and gone for ever: an age of fixed and all-encompassing social allegiances and organisations, an age when voters having made their choice were content to leave the government to get on with it, expecting no further voice in affairs for the next four or five years. Today disillusion has seeped so far into the whole process that it is hard to see how the old mutual trust and public acceptance could be revived without reform right across the system. Tinkering with one bit at a time, however ingenious, will only exacerbate the sense of frustration when it becomes obvious that the rest of the system has not changed at all.

To start at the beginning: if you fail to catch the interest of the young as they grow up, you are unlikely to excite them later on. So our first proposal is that all young people must be actively introduced to their rights and duties as citizens at the earliest opportunity. We think this means before they leave school. So, votes at 16, preceded by a practical and serious course in the history and workings of the British political system.

Second, voters need to be registered, individually and automatically, not as members of a household (and thus, so often, only if Dad bothers to fill in the form). Britain's opposite numbers in countries like Germany and Sweden are amazed that our electoral registers are so incomplete and out of date.

Third, the political system has to make sure that you can have a real say in who is to represent you. Every party needs to open up its procedures for candidate selection to non-party members.

Fourth, party funding has to be cleaned up. We suggest limits on individual donations of £10,000 and on group donations of £100 per member. Millionaires could still give large sums to a pressure group of their fancy but the pressure group would need to have any political donations authorised by a vote of its members. British politics is also generally underfunded by comparison both with its own past and with other social activities today. So we propose an ingenious but modest wheeze for public funding, especially designed to help parties without sugar daddies. At each election, every voter would be able to nominate a local political party to receive, say, £3. If you do not vote or you do not want the bastards to have an extra penny, then your £3 would stay in the public treasury to be spent on hospitals and tanks.

Fifth, people may still be deterred from voting if they feel that their vote does not make any difference, which in safe seats it doesn't. (Nothing was more off-putting at the 2005 general election than the spectacle of Conservative and Labour strategists boasting that they needed only to canvass the 2% of voters in marginal seats who were going to make the difference and whose names they had locked away in their "voter vaults".) The only answer is to introduce some form of responsive electoral system in which every vote cast goes towards helping a candidate to get elected. I have spouted all the arguments against proportional representation myself in the past. David Cameron and Ken Clarke are spouting them still. But I have been converted to reform, not so much because it is fairer than first-past-the-post but because it is the only way to galvanise the parties to canvass every ward in every seat.

Also in openDemocracy on the practice and flaws of British democracy:

Helena Kennedy & Anthony Sampson, "What's going wrong with Britain? "
(May 2004)

Stuart Weir, "Democracy? Yes! " (July 2004)

Stuart Weir, "The rules of the game: Britain's counter-terrorism strategy" - with Andrew Blick (November 2005)

Simon Burall & Stuart Weir, "In whose name: democracy and British foreign policy"
(January 2006)

If you find this material enjoyable or provoking please consider commenting in our forums – and supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

The concordat option

But we cannot stop there. The sweep of reform has to go beyond the ballot-box. For the voting system can be as democratic as you like, but it still won't draw the disenchanted to the polling station if the House of Commons continues to be popularly regarded as a rubberstamp and a house of correction for the independently minded in which the whips always have the last word. We have to rebalance power at the centre too.

After Charlie Falconer and Tony Blair made such a hopeless mess of reforming the law lords, the former (as the reluctant lord chancellor) and Harry Woolf (the lord chief justice) signed what they called a "concordat" – a kiss-and-make-up agreement reached in January 2004 setting out the duties and rights of judges and entrenching their independence.

We need two more such concordats. The first would be between parliament and government, to give members of parliament much greater powers to introduce legislation and hold the government to account through genuinely independent select committees. It beggars description, for example, that we have never had a full independent inquiry into the foot-and-mouth fiasco in 2001 or the decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003.

The second concordat would set out the division of powers between central and local government. There is no other country I can think of where government can so casually bully and emasculate local councils. (Personally, I would like to see a third concordat, between the United Kingdom and the European Union, which would set precise limits on the EU's powers – as the rejected European constitution so signally failed to do – and give national parliaments the right to question and even reject proposals from the European commission before they become set in concrete.)

Concordats of this sort can, I think, give clear voice to the proper division of powers without the whole weary business of trying to put together and pass a comprehensive written constitution. But even a better balanced system with more real powers for MPs and local councillors will still leave voters without much of a direct voice between elections. There needs to be another channel.

Representative democracy will only benefit from juicing up by a measure of direct participation. In places like Switzerland and California, holding referenda on controversial issues, especially those that cut across party lines, has long been part of the furniture. Now, all over the world – from Brazil to British Columbia to Estonia – nations are experimenting with new forms of decision-making.

The thought of letting ordinary voters this close to the levers of power makes the most high-minded liberals a little queasy. Won't the great unwashed start voting to string up undesirables? Extensive research, carried out for the Power commission by Graham Smith of Southampton University, is reassuring. The experience of all these devices is that people vote soberly and after careful reflection. Most politicians are glad to embrace the outcomes, realising that their authority is strengthened rather than undermined by listening directly to the voice of the people.

This may seem an ambitious programme, spread as it is over three fronts: reviving elections and parties, rebalancing our institutions, and giving voters a direct say in national and local decisions. But we should reflect that over the past twenty-five years we have reformed almost everything in Britain from the trade unions to soccer's offside rule. The one area that remains more or less just as it was is the political system, which has become shabby, vandalised and unloved like a bus shelter where the buses don't stop any more. Time, I think, to take pity on a set of British institutions which used to be so widely envied and imitated and could be made a source of pride again.

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