Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Does British politics need rebranding? (Part II)

Occupy: Politics still matters to some people

The British political process continues to alienate ordinary people. Few people think politicians represented their interests, and even fewer trust what they say.  Voter turnout is low, and even lower among young people. Just over a week ago, I sat on the panel for a debate on how to rebrand politics. There was undeniably a consensus in the audience that the political system is innately elitist, and was disconnected from the problems of ordinary young people. Against this, Shaun Bailey, an advisor for David Cameron, argued that it was up to the individual to be the change they wanted to see. He was right to point out that our system, compared to others in the world, is relatively uncorrupted, accountable and participatory.

The debate was easily able to identify some of the symptoms of the ‘illness’ of democracy. Indeed, the causes too are being more frequently discussed in the public sphere: Labour MP Gloria de Piero has conducted a study that concluded, amongst other things, that the public feel alienated due to a lack of ‘ordinary’ people in politics. In the first part of this article, I argued that since party democracy is a zero-sum game, it discourages honesty and cross-party cooperation; I believe this is innate to the modern system, and it makes politics both exciting (for those interested) and impregnable (for those who are not). Turning to American politics, it has been argued that the two-party democratic system there is responsible for the increasingly extreme policies of at least one of the parties (guess which).  Let’s be thankful that as yet, the Labour and Conservative parties have not yet been tempted on to the extremes of the divide.

There is relatively little debate however over what can be done to reconnect democratic politics with those whom it claims to represent: the demos. This is partly because few people are looking at the problems, and even fewer people have any ideas as to how to cure them. The issues are inevitably complex and widespread, but here are a few suggestions.

Let’s take the core tenet; that the public feels alienated from politics and the political process. This is partly an issue of education – educational standards need to be raised, and young people have to be instilled with the idea that politics matters and affects them. It is impossible to ignore the fact that a (largely) left-leaning audience at the debate were in contention with an advisor to a conservative Prime Minister. Educational standards will raise the ability of ordinary people to get involved themselves, hold MPs to account and make better informed decisions, so satisfying one half of the argument.

Undoubtedly though there have to be some changes to the system as well. One proposition I have is through devolution. The more localised power is, the more the public would see how decisions affect them – people would care more because they would see more clearly how an elected candidate influenced the local area.  At the current time, we have MPs, who represent a constituency but may find their interests conflict with national ones. We also have elected councillors, but who have relatively little power.

A small change such as allowing councils to keep a higher proportion of the income and business taxes they raise, rather than sending it to the centre, would give more local incentive for growth and job creation. It would also make local politics more important, and the public would have more of a say over local prosperity. Issues such as house building would therefore be decided locally and with local needs accounted for. Local debate would be more active because the issue would be between local growth and employment in local companies versus local environmental issues, rather than local versus national needs and benefit. Councillors would also be held accountable. The government should restart the regional development fund to ensure poorer areas did not fall behind.

A re-energising of local politics would hopefully have the effect of drawing in more local, ‘ordinary’ people into politics. In any case, the public would feel that their MP or councillors were more representative of their interests if more powers were devolved from the centre. In a similar vein, the election of mayors in cities might encourage people to take interest in the political process out of pride of wanting their city to do well. This may well lend itself to personality politics and more Bojo copycats. Nevertheless characters like him are refreshing to see, and he connects with people, despite being an old-Etonian. Elected councillors and mayors can step out of the partisan political process and be accountable solely on their local successes.
The devolution of these powers would mean there was more to play for in local elections, and hopefully this would mean more vigorous marketing campaigns, more effort to engage local people and more substantial local debates coming to the fore.

This suggestion is by no means perfect. What I mean to do is look practically at what can be done to stimulate public engagement and connect politics with people, rather than simply condemning the system and those who do nothing to change it. Shaun Bailey is right – people do have the power to change things, but equally that comes with the recognition that change does need to happen. So let’s get round to changing it.

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