I have spent several decades working with politicians from all parties across central and local government. These roles have included positions as both a Director and Chief Executive in local government, Deputy Chair of the Environment Agency, Chair of a NHS hospital trust, Under Secretary at the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, and Chair of the Community Cohesion Independent Review Team. In all tiers and parts of government, it has become increasingly hard to find anyone that believes that the political system is working well – in fact, I think it is well and truly broken.
From my personal experience, I know that politicians are very determined to contribute to making their constituencies, and their country, a better place. The appalling abuse, threats and intimidation – not forgetting the tragic murders of Jo Cox MP and Sir David Amess MP – means that all politicians are acutely aware of their vulnerabilities and many have begun to doubt whether they can continue.
But politicians do also need to recognise that the tribal environment and political system into which they are thrust means that even the highest ideals and levels of integrity are soon challenged. I have seen little sign that they understand their predicament, nor that they are prepared to lead the change. They are stuck.
And what I have learnt from my work on cohesion is that this is not just about making politics work better. The political culture infects many parts of our national and civic life and is actually responsible for causing and heightening some tensions and divisions.
We need fresh ideas – and radical proposals – but these are most likely to come from outside the political class. I cannot claim that my proposals will be the best or only means of change and, if reforms are to stand any chance of enactment in the next Parliament, the electorate will need to debate and demand them now.
Our democratic system is no longer fit for purpose
More than two-thirds of electors in the UK say none of the main political parties represent them and describe themselves as politically ‘homeless’. One of the latest surveys, in the context of Covid19, revealed that just 12% of people say that politicians ‘understand people like me’. Further, according to the Hansard Society, the proportion of respondents who believed the system of government required either ‘quite a lot’ or a ‘great deal’ of improvement rose above 70% for the first time. This was 12 points higher than when the annual research first took place in 2004.
According to Transparency International, the UK has plunged to its lowest ever position (from 11th to 18thplace) in the ‘corruption perceptions index’ following concerns about the way government contracts were handed out, how funds have been allocated to areas within the UK, breaches of the ministerial code and the influence of wealthy donors to political parties.
More worryingly still, trust in politicians is at an all-time low and people have now begun to lose respect in the established mainstream parties – so much so that more than half of the people questioned by the Hansard Society were prepared to entertain the idea of a ‘strong leader who is willing to break the rules’. This is a fundamental challenge to our democratic principles.
Our disenchantment began long before Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic. And it is also shared to some extent in other countries, where populist and extreme views have all but squeezed the life out of the centre and social democratic parties. The ‘first past the post’ system and other factors in the UK, however, make the problem more acute.
There is no tradition of the collaboration between political parties which proportional representation would entail. And the UK electoral system has enabled mainstream parties to target just a minority of voters – around 40% is often sufficient to gain power – with no need to build majority support. Politicians increasingly use techniques to segment and divide the electorate to reach this threshold. In other words, the electoral system has become inherently divisive. This soon turns into a tribal narrative which helps to normalise intolerance and disrespectful attitudes in social media and our everyday lives.
The very competence of government, its processes, systems for establishing policies and the delivery of services, has increasingly been found wanting. There are a number of reasons for this. The failure by successive governments to reform the civil service; the increasing use of consultants and advisors who are not competent in practicalities and delivery; and the constant polling and use of focus groups has meant that government has now become more akin to a campaigning machine, dominated by the short term with the constant announcement of new initiatives with little thought for the practical realities. Government is simply not geared to the process and effectiveness of management.
Politicians themselves are willing to admit that ‘politics is broken’, but none have offered any sort of solution. Even worse, they seem content to bury themselves in the ‘Westminster Bubble’ in which the tribal culture and behaviour has displaced any semblance of principled and ethical standards. Indeed, the way in which they work and live their lives – and even the code language that they have begun to adopt – appears to put them a world away from most peoples’ everyday lived experiences. The political class has become more remote and impermeable than ever before.
As politicians remain in post for decades at a time, they build a mutually reinforcing network of their family and friends, confidantes and advisers, allied think tanks, journalists, consultants and contractors. The opportunities for fresh ideas and new approaches are quickly constrained, and the opportunities for cronyism and corruption continue to grow.
We need a new ‘Politics Charter’, the primary aim of which will be to find ways to reconnect politicians and to restore trust and confidence in their ability. In so doing, it would have the potential to reinvigorate many aspects of our democracy by creating a more open Parliamentary framework and devolving power to local areas and directly to communities. It would also allow politicians to create more of a sense of unity and common purpose.
The Charter should be geared towards the following ends:
• To fundamentally change the nature, behaviour and culture of the political class – to make it less tribal, more open and permeable and to make it more representative in every sense, including the working practices – in other words, to make ‘them’ become more like ‘us’.
• To change the processes and procedures of Parliament and across governmental agencies generally, ensuring that decisions are taken on a more methodical basis, based on proper assessments and evidence; and with a complete reform of the support systems on which they depend.
• To develop policies that are more fitting to the modern age, less divisive and more focused on longer term aims; and with greater devolution to keep in touch with the everyday reality of communities.
• To create a government that recognises the importance of competence and delivery and that the continuous issuing of unachievable policies and campaign slogans further undermines trust and credibility.
We now face a very dangerous situation in which voters, understandably, seek radical new approaches, even toying with the appeals of extreme and anti-democratic leaders. Without change, it is likely that the disillusionment will deepen and further threaten the democratic processes and principles that we hold so dear.
A new ‘Charter for Politics’ will only be adopted if we can convince political parties and individual MPs that it is in their interest to sign up. In other words, it will need to be championed by the electorate themselves, on an all and no-party basis, developed into a meaningful commitment for which all MPs – and prospective MPs – could be held to account.
The next general election would be a great starting point!
I will be publishing proposals for the Charter shortly