I have written an article for 'Forward' magazine which is published today by the Conservative Way Forward group. You can read the text of the article below. The picture, above, included with this post, is the picture that was taken for the front cover of the magazine. The people featured are' left to right, Louise Bagshawe, Stephen Greenhalgh, Damian Collins, Harriett Baldwin, Charlie Elphicke, Conor Burns, Michelle Tempest and Stephen Metcalfe
Giving Politics the X factor
If a general election is democracy’s equivalent of a five course meal, then the X factor is its box of Quality Street. Instead of the weighty decision of which party will sustain you over the course of a whole parliament, you can just choose from any one of numerous small and brightly wrapped packages. If you make the wrong choice, it doesn’t matter; just take another next time.
The appeal of shows like the X factor is clear: it combines entertainment with empowerment. For a couple of hours every Saturday you are a touch of a button away from making a decision that will affect someone else’s life. Like a latter day Emperor at the Roman games you choose who has entertained you enough to warrant a stay of execution for a further week. You decide. You vote. You see the result. If only, they say, our politics was more like this, and perhaps if it was more people would get involved.
In the middle of an economic recession we have a political depression fuelled by the MP’s expenses scandal and the impotence of a dying Labour Government. Voter turn out in elections has been in decline since the 1992 general election and the votes cast for the main parties have been steadily falling, with more support going to smaller single issue groups and the nationalists. Some say that there are two answers to these problems: more local referendums on single issues and changing the way we elect Members of Parliament so that more weight is given to minority opinions. Both these changes, the advocates tell us, would give people more of a voice in our politics and allow a greater breadth of opinions to be heard.
Go back to the X factor and it’s worth remembering that the element of democracy is, in fact, a complete illusion. The Judges control the order of the performances, the songs sung, and give live opinions that are supposed to influence the views of the audience. They have the power to ensure that the people they want to survive on the show can, and the vote is just there to ask the pubic to endorse their views. Just in case the voters place the wrong act last, in some shows the Judges often reserve the right to eliminate the next least popular act instead. This is why it is very rare for someone to win, who the Judges want to get rid of. When this did happen with John Sergeant, on the BBC’s ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, a huge PR offensive was launched against him that effectively hounded him off the programme. If phone-in talent shows were really an exercise in democracy, we would have the power to vote off the Judges.
This has always been at the heart of my concerns to the idea of introducing more referendums, because there is more to being a democracy than holding votes. On really big constitutional issues like whether or not Britain should join the euro, referendums give the public a clear say on binding and important long term decisions. However, local referendums on administrative issues like tax rates, policing priorities or a property development reduce the public interest to taking snap decisions on single issues, rather than looking at the whole picture of how they are governed. In such referendums it is likely that most times people will vote against tax increases, for extra spending and against development; which would also be presented as the best pain-free option in each case. Also people are not necessarily being asked to balance competing priorities or consider how the result of the referendum can be delivered without implications for other areas of local services.
The failure of the G20 protestors in London in April 2009 to present any kind of coherent message for change was a result of this kind of an approach to politics. Different groups adopted single issues, many of which were contradictory to each other; like campaigning for measures to mitigate climate change and against plans to build centres to create renewable energy.
The key to our democracy then is not just the power to chose who governs us, but the power to remove them if we think they have done a bad job. The more policy is imposed through referendums, the weaker politically government at all levels will become and the harder it will be for voters to exercise their judgement over its performance.
However, in keeping more responsibility in the hands of the elected politicians we should also insist that they take back more of the powers they have willingly given away. When Sir Ian Blair resigned as the Commissioner of the London Metropolitan police he explained that he had taken the decision because he had lost the confidence of Boris Johnson, who is both Mayor of London and Chairman of its Police Authority. The Home Secretary’s response was to condemn this political interference into the running of the police by the Mayor. But surely Londoners would expect that if the Mayor didn’t think its police force was being well run that he should speak out; that’s what he is there for. Under this current Labour Government, Minister’s seem more than happy to hide behind conventions and procedures and explain that a controversial issue is not something that it would be proper for them to comment on or get involved with. In terms of limiting political interference with the police, clearly we would expect that this means that Ministers do not misdirect police resources for their own political motives, not that they are forbidden from taking any public view on its actions.
But it is not just policing where we see this problem in action. You will often hear Ministers claim that they are taking a decision based on the science, or that they are ‘following the science’ in some emerging issue. That’s fine in itself, but a sound scientific report to support the licensing of some new treatment, procedure, or chemical should just be a basic requirement rather than an end in itself. If all Ministers did was sign off on approved scientific reports we could just leave the job of Government to the Civil Service.
This attitude has also infected people in local government. I was recently at a meeting in my constituency when a Lib Dem councillor spoke out against the Leader of Kent County Council because he had said that he was in favour of local development project. But his objection was not because he disagreed with the development, but because he thought it was wrong that the County Council leader should have expressed a view publicly that was contrary to the advice of the council officers and which might also influence others. What is the point of having Council leaders if they are not prepared to demonstrate this leadership in the way that Paul Carter did in Kent?
However, if we want politicians to keep power and responsibility we need to preserve an electoral system that maintains the personal link between Members of Parliament and their local constituents and also produces, in the main, Governments with a working majority of seats in the House of Commons. Voting in politics should be seen as the positive affirmation of a point of view. MPs should be elected because they received the most positive votes, not because of a combination of positive votes and second and third choice preferences. Governments should ideally be formed on the basis of a manifesto on which they stood for election, rather than the back room deals they have done in the process of trying to put together a coalition.
The response to the political crisis we have faced this year and largely been by critics to decrease the power and accountability politicians and the House of Commons. They would have less to do, fewer decisions to make, and in turn be less necessary. Our democracy would indeed be given the X factor, controlled by a few Judges and with politicians limited to the role of the studio audience, largely impotent but allowed to boo and cheer every now and again.
When John F Kennedy accepted the nomination of the Democratic Party to run for President in 1960 he said that ‘we cannot have faith in the future unless we have faith in ourselves.’ This, too, should be the mantra for people entering politics today, and for everyone who votes for them. If there are changes to be made to our political system it should be to role back the power of non-elected bodies, to make ministers take responsibility for their actions and to foster a culture of healthy debate and enquiry to give greater scrutiny of decisions.