Reshaping Our Political System

I want to make a contention to you today; that our current political system is broken and needs reform. This is not, perhaps, a rather original contention, as many people before me have made the same contention. But when we put this forward, what do we want to see as a reformed system in place of the nonsense that’s currently designed to perpetuate idiocy, corruption, and a closed shop of politicians who don’t want to rock the boat.

All you’ve got to do is type that question into the internet to know that there’s no one answer. There is one particular model put forward by political thinkers from across the spectrum; it’s radical, to be sure, but radical is good and positive in many respects. It should to the radical amongst us and, on this matter, we should all be radical if we want to see a new system that’s more representative.

First, some background that, I hope, builds a case for support of this scheme; it certainly appeals to me, and I want to give you a chance to see the potential in it today whilst considering some of the challenges that brought us here. Our system of government has, for many years, been one of the most centralised in Europe. Many more matters are decided nationally in Britain than in Germany or Belgium, for example, where effective levels of regional government have been long-established.

Recent years have seen steps towards regional government, notably in Scotland and Wales, but also on a smaller scale in England. But treating regional and national authorities as representatives of Westminster rather than representatives of the people in the areas concerned doesn’t change very much. The proposal that’s being discussed in many quarters is that a federal system would work far more effectively, with the Westminster government acting as a top-tier legislator in areas where national issues really need national decisions – such as defence and foreign affairs – but devolving all local activities to local authorities in each country. Such a system could bring the citizens closer to the decisions which most affect their lives, and the power of distant bureaucrats would be reduced.

The governance of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should be reinvented within a new union; this is the argument of the Constitution Reform Group, founded by former Conservative cabinet minister Lord Salisbury. It also includes the former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Labour Northern Ireland and Wales secretary Peter Hain, the former clerk of the House of Commons Lord Lisvane, and the former Ulster Unionist politician David Burnside. The group also claims the support of former Conservative prime minister Sir John Major, and from the former chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, Graham Brady.

The CRG’s proposals say the existing union should be replaced with fully devolved government in each part of the UK, with each given full sovereignty over its own affairs. As a result, the Westminster parliament would be reduced to 146 MPs. The individual nations would then be encouraged to pool sovereignty to cover the matters they wish to be dealt with on a shared basis. The proposals say they “start from the position that each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is a unit that both can and should determine its own affairs; but that each unit should also be free to choose to share, through an efficient and effective United Kingdom, functions which are more effectively exercised on a collective basis.”

The time for radical change has come. This country needs a new act of union,” Salisbury says. “We are in a different world following the Brexit vote. The top-down, ad hoc approach to the structure of the United Kingdom needs to be replaced. We believe that our approach based on consent will provide a stronger union than the one that we now have and which is under challenge.”

The group proposes that the shared UK functions would include a head of state (they argue for the monarchy, but fear not – I’ll come onto that), foreign affairs, defence, national security, immigration, international treaties, human rights, the supreme court, a single currency, a central bank function, financial services regulation, income and corporation tax powers, and the civil service. Other functions of the would be controlled by the individual nations, creating what would in effect be devolution-max.

The other unresolved question is the shape, size, and future of the UK parliament. A strong option is to abolish the House of Lords and have the House of Commons, consisting of 146 MPs, as the main legislative chamber. A new, second chamber comprising delegates from the English, Scottish and Welsh parliaments and from the Northern Ireland assembly would then provide oversight.

Radical? Certainly. It’s a powerful proposal, and a breathtaking change from what we currently have.But radical change is absolutely essential.

I promised that I would come back to the role of head of state, and it’s not like me to avoid a point, especially when there’s more radical change to be had. After the British Civil War, we did away with the hereditary monarchy and the world did not cave in around us. We did, however, and after a generation, we brought back the king’s son to take back the monarchy. And so we have been lumbered with endless non-entities ever since with ever-decreasing power been awarded to them. What a chance we had at our fingertips, and how easily we squandered it.

An un-elected head of state is an anachronism in any democratic society; to have a member of one family as our head of state as illiberal, undemocratic, and unrepresentative. Our monarch, as well as being our head of state and chief representative to the world, is also the head of our national church and of our military forces. They cannot be removed from office and, upon their death, their eldest child will take over the position without any input from the British people – or, indeed, from a medical expert to ensure that they are fit for office. And the primary arguments for keeping the monarchy is that is offers consistency, because they have been “bred” for ruling (as if there’s a gene for it, and as if no-one can learn how to lead) – and because they bring in a lot of tourism (like tourists are really that unintelligent to believe they will see the royal family wandering the corridors of Buckingham Palace or Balmoral). Oh, and because of tradition – we’ve always (bar the civil war) done it like this, so we always should. On that basis, we would never have had the Magna Carta or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. All these arguments are utter tosh, of course, but rather endemic of our national thinking.

A change is needed; we need a head of state chosen by us. We should be able to vote in – and out – all posts in government and above it; we have that right. We currently have a quasi-democratic nation that isn’t fit for purpose; we shouldn’t rely on the inherited genetics of each successive generation of monarch, duke, and earl.

But how should we select our politicians in the first place? Should we professionalise the political class? Or does that lead to something more dangerous – the development of a group of people who don’t have real-life experience?

When we have a professional group of politicians, with a proper training process and professional standards and oversight, politicians are more likely to be involved in govern,emt for the long-haul, as well as improve over time. However, any Parliament that doesn’t have a range of knowledge and skills within it is seriously bereft of talent, and depleted in its ability to make effective decisions – they’ll be more likely to make errors and destroy their own reputations.

The first part of how to select effective politicians is to first examine how political parties play a part in this process, so let’s start there and work backwards.

Political parties play a vital role in any democracy. They allow people who share a set of similar aims and opinions to collaborate, and can influence public policy by getting their candidates elected. The main functions of these parties are to present their candidates and campaigns to the electorate, as well as training these candidates up for public office.

We’re very similar to the United States in that we have a two-party system for the most part; Labour and the Conservatives are the only parties at the moment with realistic chances of ever gaining power; the Liberal Democrats had their first taste of power for generations in the 2010-2015 coalition government, but were resoundingly knocked back by the voters and probably won’t sit on the government benches for a hell of a long time. These smaller groups predominantly act as voices of smaller, dissenting opinions, or often propping up or knocking down majorities during closely-held votes.

Of course, there are downsides to political parties, and it’s only right and proper that we acknowledge those;

  • They can have a selfish propaganda that could hurt national interest. They are full of vested interests and sometimes care more for their own members than the country.

  • They can create factionalism and make political life artificial.

  • They ruin individuality. They force people to often support and share their views blindly; support the whole of the platform or none of it.

  • They encourage corruption. They distribute money to the electorate in terms of tax breaks and so on, in order to secure votes for their candidates.

  • Political parties could deprive the country of talented individuals who can contribute to its success. Opposition politicians are often excluded in participating.

Some people aren’t comfortable collaborating with people and ideas, rather than parties; if we agree with Jacob Rees-Mogg or Jeremy Corbyn on one particular issue, whilst disagreeing with a lot else of what they believe in as “hard right” or “hard left” representatives of their respective parties, then are we really pushing them away on the one issue we might agree on because we can’t work with a Tory or a Socialist? That’s blind, narrow-minded behaviour.

During the Brexit campaign, Nicola Sturgeon – lead of the Scottish National Party and current First Minister of Scotland – refused to stand on a platform with then-Prime Minister David Cameron, despite them being on the same side of the debate. She disliked the opposing party so much that she felt it would be political suicide to appear together.

We need to change the conversation; it’s not about left versus right, or Tory versus Labour, it’s about which party best “fits” your view on a particular subject. We need to be able to tackle issues at local and national issues without party politics getting in the way; if we agree with the “other side” on a particular issue – on the side where we actually agree with them on very little else – then why can’t we feel comfortable speaking out and saying what we agree on?

Following the Liberal Democrat example of allowing its membership to select its policies is a good place to start. That way, people can connect more with the leadership and make choices about what it should support and argue for; even if you don’t agree, you have the opportunity to change and influence things both at developmental stages and at the ballot box.

Actually selecting politicians for the election hustings is an interesting challenge; should it be conducted by a small group of senior, experienced party members, or by all members of the local party? They should be allowed to select the candidate; it strengthens the connection between potential politician and voters.

Since 2009, the Conservatives have been the only party to experiment with open primary elections to select some candidates. Two primaries were held ahead of the 2010 general election, in Totnes and Gosport, and 12 primaries were held ahead of the 2015 election.

Totnes was the pathfinder for this kind of selection, with the election being held in August 2009 on a turnout of around 25% – a disappointing result. Local members had the opportunity to pick from a range of candidates, but overwhelmingly didn’t take part; maybe they felt that it was a gimmick. We can only hope it isn’t. Sarah Wollaston was the candidate selected to fight the election (on 48% of the primary election), and she went on to be elected MP for the area in 2010.

In Gosport, the existing (Conservative) MP announced that he would retire in 2010, so primaries were held to select the next Tory candidate; Caroline Dinenage was selected with 38% of the vote, and she won the seat a few months later with an increased majority.

When Douglas Carswell defected from the Tories to UKIP in Clacton, the resulting by-election (only happening because he honourably decided to resign and fight the seat under his new colours – and the fact that an MP isn’t compelled to do this is shocking) saw Giles Watling elected in an open primary – but he came second. Carswell kept the seat with a 59.7% share of the vote – it was actually the biggest increase in the share of a vote for any party in any by-election in history.

In this case, two factors influenced that election; Carswell was a popular local MP, irrespective of party, and he was also reflective of the local politics, Clacton being one of the most UKIP-friendly areas in the country.

Mark Reckless was the second Conservative MP to defect to UKIP, and he too decided to fight a by-election under his new colours. In a postal primary election, Kelly Tolhurst narrowly won the primary, but lost the by-election – and then, remarkably, won the seat a year later in the 2015 election. Were people in Rochester & Strood fed up with UKIP’s policies, Reckless’ attitude as MP, or a combination of the two?

Let’s now talk about the political “class” that has, inevitably, evolved over the decades and centuries.  In one sense, having a political or an inherited political class system could be argued as a good thing; it ensures that there is order, continuity, training, and professionalism within the service. However, it could also be considered that professional politicians eventually become experts in the field of politics rather than from a diverse range of opinions; look at the number of lawyers in Parliament compared to, for example, the number of doctors, business people, scientists, and social workers.

There’s an argument to be made for people wanting to be politicians coming from certain fields, and that’s fine, but when we don’t encourage others to consider standing – even for a term or two – to mix things up, then the view of Parliament becomes very narrow.

One example of where that worked was the case of Martin Bell, otherwise known as “the man in the white suit.” In 1997, before the general election of that year, Bell announced that he was leaving his job working for the BBC to stand as an independent candidate in the Tatton constituency – seen as one of the safest Conservative seats in the entire country. Neil Hamilton, the sitting MP, was then embroiled in sleaze allegations, sadly endemic of the Conservative government under John Major of the time. In response to Bell standing, Labour and the Liberal Democrats withdrew their candidates in favour of him.

Bell won, trouncing Hamilton by a majority of 11,077 votes (Hamilton previously had a majority of over 22,000), and became the first successful independent parliamentary candidate since 1951.

He served just one term, up until the 2001 general election, and said at the time that he regretted saying that he wouldn’t stand again – but he remained fixed to his principles. Bell was properly independent, too; he voted with the Labour government on some issues, but went with the Tories on others. For those four years, an independently-minded journalist was able to speak from the back benches about issues that mattered to him and his constituency without the need to be censored or cleared by a party machine; he didn’t have an axe to grind, he didn’t have a career to pursue, and he was determined to be a critical friend.

That’s important because, although politicians will only really progress when they are affiliated to a political party that can confer advancement and push back against rebellious tendencies, party politics create a rather homogeneous whole, and put individuals and mavericks into a situation when they feel obligated to choose between conformity or suspension … or even expulsion. Hence politicians like Dennis Skinner, a long-term Labour MP, being a rebel because of his independently-minded activity in the House of Commons, and never advancing within the party.

It’s been argued that there’s more diversity in the House of Lords, because of the introduction of Life Peerages, and that’s true to an extent; people can be created to the rank of Baron from any strata of society, but with a political edge – the appointments are made by the government of the day, based on their own interests – and the House of Lords can’t be said to be fully representative, as the residents there are a mixture of landed gentry, aristocrats who owe their position to being the eldest (usually) son of the previous owner of the title, and people appointed to the role. Whilst there certainly are non-career politicians in the Lords, it’s still an undemocratic institution.

MPs and their advisers not only live for politics, but make their careers from politics. According to the House of Commons Library, there has been real growth in professional politicians, people who come to the Commons from a job elsewhere in politics. Some 21 of the MPs elected in 1979 were previously employed in politics, 3.4 per cent of the total. By 2010, there were 90 career professionals on the green benches, 15 per cent of the House. The number of professionals (lawyers, doctors, teachers) is also in slow decline, and the number of business people entering politics is more or less stable. Around one in four (26 per cent) of new candidates who contested the 2015 general election were political professionals already working as advisers, researchers, party officials, trade unionists or lobbyists. So are we in for more of the same?

The Scottish National Party had by far and above the highest proportion of party insiders standing for Parliament in 2015 (47%), with Labour and Plaid Cymru jointly next in line (33%). The party with the smallest proportion of candidates from a political insider background was UKIP, at just 20%, which certainly helped their image as the “People’s Army” standing against the “establishment”.

UKIP directly competed with the Conservatives for the mantle of the “party of business”; the party under Nigel Farage (himself a former City trader) had the largest proportion of candidates (38%) standing from a business and commercial background; the Conservatives (led by David Cameron, a former PR man) came a very close second at 37%.

The main backgrounds of political professional candidates were recorded as;

  • Party Officials

  • Journalists

  • Trades Union Officials

  • Councillors

  • Lobbyists

  • Special Advisers (spads)

  • Researchers

Labour had 23% of its new candidates in 2015 working in trade unions, which will not stop accusations it of being in hoc to “union barons”. The Liberal Democrats’ current base is heavily made up of local councillors (53%) and lobbyists (21%), while the Conservatives had 27% of their candidates previously working as lobbyists. The Scottish Nationalists had a healthy supply of councillors as well (43%) among their candidates, as did UKIP (40%). Nearly half of those standing for UKIP earned their stripes as party officials (48%), a much smaller proportion than the Conservatives (8%).

So much for our political class being made up of people who represent the people. Until the 1970s, Britain had a tight-knit political class that emerged from upper-class families whose sons came to know each other at elite public schools, like Eton and Harrow, and the “old boy” network, based in Oxford and Cambridge. After 1970, however, the political class became much more open in terms of the social origins of British politicians and top civil servants. Conservative MPs have increasingly been educated at non-elite schools and been of more modest social backgrounds. Labour MPs, in turn, are increasingly middle class, white-collar, and university educated. So the parties still have a collective “sameness”, with similar backgrounds, experiences, and political views – and when an individual comes along who is outside that sameness, they’re more likely to be seen as a maverick and a rebel. It’s also more likely, this “sameness”, to put individuals off entering politics in the first place.

The 2010 & 2015 general elections, as well as the Brexit referendum, has been the start of a process; it’s made more people politically aware and seeing the potential of their ability to sway a vote, and it’s begun to warp the establishment’s view of the world. They have to face up to a new reality, where the ruling clique, being previously infused with a paternalistic disdain for those it claims to represent, is struggling to justify its continued existence.

Commentators have been discussing, since the Brexit vote, the disparity between London, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, which all voted to remain, and the rest of the UK, which voted predominantly to leave. But the real disparity is between the electorate and parliament. While 52% of those who voted supported leaving the EU, nearly 80% of MPs stated that they wanted to stay in. Many MPs are, on this issue, divorced from their constituents, and have failed those who didn’t vote by not inspiring them to pick a side.

Europhile MPs were united in their shock, and this was nowhere more palpable than in the resignation letters of a number of Labour’s shadow ministers. Steve Reed, shadow minister for local government, wrote: ‘A majority of Labour supporters in large parts of the north and midlands voted to leave the EU because their connection with our party has broken. We are losing touch with them.’ Anna Turley, shadow minister for civil society, echoed Reed, telling Jeremy Corbyn that ‘it has been increasingly clear to me for some time that the leadership is not in touch with the hopes, the fears, and the aspirations of my local constituents’.

Times are indeed changing for the political establishment; shock results, like Brexit and Trump, are seen as aberrations of the political system. They’re not; they’re something far more fundamental. These results are a reflection of the times, where people are becoming more and more disaffected and disengaged. Politicians need to understand that this is becoming endemic in society, and that they need to either change their arguments, work on better ways to communicate with the public, or bring more people together.

Having an effective political system also means that you need to have a clear-cut separation of powers. The institutions of statee (the executive, legislature, and judiciary) should be functionally independent, and no individual should have powers that span these offices.

In the United States, a strict separation of powers is a fundamental constitutional principle. In the United Kingdom, however, the theory of separation has had much less prominence. Institutions have evolved to achieve balance between the Crown (and the Government) and Parliament. The system resembles a balance of powers more than a formal separation of the three branches.

A separation of powers has been evident in a number of initiatives. The Tony Blair / Gordon Brown Labour governments seemed to be moving toward a more formal separation of powers. The creation of an independent Supreme Court and dismantling of the Lord Chancellor’s office have unpicked some aspects of the fusion of powers. More recently, the proposed change in the number of Members of Parliament, use of parliamentary privilege, and MPs’ involvement in super injunctions have again raised issues about the interaction between the institutions of state.

The powers of Parliament, Government, and courts are closely intertwined. In fact, the executive and legislature are seen as a close union, a near complete merging of the executive and legislative powers. The Prime Minister and a majority of his or her ministers are Members of Parliament and sit in the House of Commons. The executive is therefore at the heart of Parliament.

In order to prevent the executive from controlling Parliament, a 1975 Act created limits on the number of salaried ministers who sit in the Commons. Additionally, the legislative branch of government retains the formal power to dismiss executive officers from office. The convention of ministerial responsibility establishes the accountability of government to Parliament.

The second element of the separation of powers is between legislature and judiciary. In the UK, judges are prohibited from standing for election to Parliament under the same 1975 Act, and are expected to interpret legislation in line with the intention of Parliament, as well as develop common law. Judges in the higher courts have life tenure, which protects their independence; a resolution of both Houses is needed to remove a High Court judge from office, while judges at the lower levels can only be removed after disciplinary proceedings.

Between 1979 and 2010, the ruling party had a safe majority, which made the scrutiny of the government more difficult, although not impossible. The government could rely on its legislation being passed most of the time – although not always, if rebels were inspired to change their vote in line with the opposition. The 2010-2015 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition complicated the structure, since the then-leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, served as Deputy Prime Minister under a Conservative Prime Minister. However, the legislature can oust a government through a vote of no confidence, as in 1979.

A lot, therefore, is done on trust, that each will play its part right. That’s very worthy, but very weak; trust can break down in any relationship, so it’s important to have a political equivalent of a pre-nup agreement. The US have done this well, with a written constitution which guarantees certain rights, and security in the separation of powers – this ensures that there isn’t any dispute about the fundamental rights and obligations of all parts of the state. Any written constitution is a living document, and can be amended with the majority agreeing to it, but the fundamental rights can be enumerated in law.

As for how politics is funded, we should all feel passionate about this; British politics is being overtaken by big money. Scandal after scandal shows that voters often come second to big donors. Left to themselves, all parties have failed to find a solution; they clearly don’t want to give up a lucrative source of income.

We are all are sick to death of party funding scandals, aren’t we? Our politicians need to clean up the way parties raise money now. Good democracy always has a price tag. An open, clean, and fair model of funding the parties would give taxpayers better value for money. It would ensure our politicians don’t dance to the tune of trusts, union bosses, or City interests. All parties have been tainted by party funding, and it’s time for action.

In the run-up to the Brexit referendum, both the remain and leave campaigns, alongside smaller groups like Grassroots Out and Scientists for EU, had to declare any donations they received over £7,500 to the Electoral Commission. These were then published online, giving us a good idea of who was financing either side of the debate.

Of the £31 million in private donations that campaigners declared, half came from just 10 people and private companies. In fact, it took only 12 donors for Vote Leave and seven for the Stronger In Europe campaign to finance the full £7m they were each allowed to spend during the formal referendum period between mid-April and 23 June 2016.

One of the largest reported donations was made by a company called Better for the Country Ltd. It was registered with Companies House in the spring of 2016 – the same year as the referendum – and has yet to publish a set of accounts, so we can’t know for sure how it came to have almost £2m to give to the Grassroots Out campaign.

The Conservatives rely on donations mostly from individuals and companies; as well as these sources, Labour receives a significant portion of its donations from trade unions. In the third quarter of 2009, eighteen political parties reported donations totalling £9,532,598.

Subscriptions have declined as membership has decreased and campaign costs have grown. In fact, the Green Party is the only political party in the UK which receives the majority of its funding through membership fees.

It’s shocking to think that the future of our country being decided by the deep pockets of so few, but this is only part of a wider problem. Our political parties are heavily reliant on a small number of big donors. They might have the most philanthropic of motivations, but not always; their money buys influence and power, and that’s what they’re searching for. It should be a warning to us all of how vulnerable our democracy is to influence, where public decisions are made to benefit donor’s private interests. It’s more subtle than paying a bribe, entirely legal, and every bit as effective.

As our politicians scramble to discover how they lost the public’s trust, they could start by taking notice of the results from the Guardian’s Global Corruption Barometer. In a representative sample of more than 1,000 UK respondents, 28% thought most or all MPs were involved in corruption, and 76% thought wealthy individuals were influencing government to benefit their own interests.

Transparency International has recommended that the UK adopt a £10,000 annual cap on individual and company donations to political parties and their candidates, as first set out by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. This was echoed more recently by the cross party Lords committee examining the government’s proposals for reforming trade unions’ political funds.

Tied to this is the concept of state funding of political parties; this would limit the influence of outside money and curb corruption, as leaving the funding of our politics to a small elite is dangerous. By receiving a fixed sum from the state, political parties and candidates would be at least partly freed from needing to accept “interested money” from donors who want to influence their policies, rhetoric, or voting behaviour.

If you’re not entirely convinced by that argument, then let us put another one to you; if parties and candidates are financed with only private funds, economic inequalities in society might translate into political inequalities in government. If political parties receive all their income from private donations, there’s a risk that socio-economic differences in society will translate into marked differences in representation and access to political power.

If you are angry about politics, and you feel that things should change, then know this; you are not alone. So much of the population feel the same way; do not think that your voice doesn’t matter. Don’t write off what you want as “worthless”; we have the authority and the power by holding onto our votes, and we should be dynamic and passionate about using it to affect wholesale change. Only by us demanding change will it ever happen, so let’s raise our voices us.

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