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The political system is broken, make Parliament the focus

Peter Oborne
Peter Oborne
13 July 2009

This is the first of a series of responses to Anthony Barnett's post on the possible strategies for democrats post-expenses.

Anthony Barnett > Peter Oborne

Anthony is correct to say that the political system is broken, that the expenses scandal is a manifestation of this, that trust in politics is now smashed, and that the Political Class nevertheless believes that the situation has returned to normal ie the ‘mixture of top down controls and populist manipulation serviced by a venal political elite' described by Anthony. But I would go further than this analysis and add that unless we remedy the structural crisis at the heart of our public life some kind of political accident will take place - the Westminster equivalent of Black Wednesday in the City. This may be a return to the violent, extra-parliamentary politics of the 18th century, accompanied by a near total collapse of traditional liberalism and the emergence of a hard, populist right.

The mission to mend our politics is therefore commendable and urgent. I also agree with Anthony's prescription - reengagement with civil society, honesty, independence, accountability. He then deals with a host of competing objectives. My feeling is that all our energies should focus on one objective only: parliament, cleaning it up and making it more democratic. There is nothing peripheral about parliament: it has always been at the heart of British freedom, democracy and governance.

That doesn't mean that we can't do the other things - ie an online force for change such as Move-on (though when I examined Move-on during the Kerry campaign five years ago it had certain rather sinister aspects). But they should be all directed to the same place - ie parliament. It is also obvious that all these extra-parliamentary organisations - 38 degrees, Real Change, openDemocracy have to work together if they are to be significant and produce massive change.

Finally, Anthony raises the question whether we should focus only on the expenses scandal or the more general failure of the system. Clearly it is the more general failure - which includes of course the purchase of British politics by large corporations, the anti-democratic control of foreign policy by the United States, the emergence of sophisticated techniques of mass manipulation drawn from the advertising profession - which is the more significant. The expenses scandals are merely (as Karl Marx might put it) epiphenomena.

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