Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Politics has to become our business

So more than half of the British electorate believe that MPs are corrupt and almost eight out of ten don’t trust them to “tell the truth” either. And 62% say they believe MPs put self-interest first. Not much of a vote of confidence in the Parliamentary system there then.

The Ipsos Mori poll for the BBC will do nothing to reassure the political establishment that a few tweaks here and tougher rules there will restore public confidence in a decrepit system.

In truth, support for the existing political system has withered on the vine for decades. Now it has reached a tipping point following the revelation in the Daily Telegraph of the hitherto secret world of MPs’ “expenses” which cabinet members like Alistair Darling and Geoff Hoon also milked.

Turnout in both national and local elections has fallen dramatically in the last decade – the 2001 and 2005 elections recorded the lowest turnout (59% and 61% respectively) since the advent of universal suffrage in 1918. Some 75% of people aged 65 and up voted in the last election compared to only 37% of young people. In other words, for every two older people who voted in the last general election, only one younger person voted. Turnout at local elections has fallen by around a tenth since the 1980s, with the result that little more than a third of registered electors turnout to vote in most local elections. Less than a quarter of registered voters say they intend to vote in Thursday’s European elections.

In 2004, the Power Inquiry was set up to discover what had happened to the political system and why “disengagement from formal democratic politics in Britain [has] grown in recent years and how can it be reversed?” The commission, chaired by radical lawyer Helena Kennedy QC, reported in 2006 that it was “vital to re-engage the British people with formal democracy” if the following were to be avoided:

 the weakening of the mandate and legitimacy for elected governments – whichever party is in power – because of plummeting turnout
 the further weakening of political equality because whole sections of the community feel estranged from politics
 the weakening of effective dialogue between governed and governors
 the weakening of effective recruitment into politics
 the rise of undemocratic political forces
 the rise of a “quiet authoritarianism” within government.

You could say with confidence that everything since the report was published has reinforced the inquiry’s fears. The question now arises as to whether it’s possible for the effectively disenfranchised electorate to take matters into their own hands in the sense of creating a more democratic political system?

For too long in history, politics has been left to or handed over to “others”. This was encouraged, for example, by the trade unions at the end of the 19th century when they created the Labour Party to deal with “political matters” on their behalf while they got on with industrial affairs. Well, “their” party turned out to be unaccountable and uncontrollable as it quickly became absorbed by the capitalist state. Now the unions are left powerless and unrepresented, pleading with New Labour to act to save jobs, all to no avail.

The existing set-up is clearly passed its use-by date and rearranging the deckchairs on a sinking SS Westminster will not suffice. Voters themselves have to decide what kind of new, democratic political system has to take its place through mechanisms like People’s Conventions. Politics should now become everyone’s affair.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

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