The wheels are falling off our political system. Truly radical reforms are needed if we are to face the future effectively.
As a longstanding supporter of the Labour Party (member since 1974, resigned over the Iraq War, re-joined as a latter day Corbynista) I was obviously delighted with the recent election result. It confirmed for me that there is an appetite for progressive socialist policies that cut through the lies and distortions of the media, that younger people are engaging more fully with political action, and that there is hope for a progressive future. Ironically, however, it also demonstrated the volatility of voting preferences and, in this case, a dramatic return to the dominance of the two main parties in a first-past-the post political system that neither of those two parties will have any interest in changing. Which means that future general elections will continue to depend largely on voting patterns in the marginal constituencies, and people like me living in ultra-safe seats will have little chance of influencing the outcome directly.
So despite the apparent advance of progressive policies, I reluctantly conclude that the political process remains dysfunctional. This paper revisits an essay I wrote over two years ago, and finds it as relevant today as then. I have simply updated it.
Why our political system is broken
The first-past-the-post system is not the only reason why our democratic system has become so dysfunctional. Apart from the low reputation of politicians in general, following a succession of scandals spanning illegal funding, expenses, sex and corruption, and the mistrust they incur (something that Corbyn did much to turn around ) there is the yawning gap between voters and the political policy and decision making process; the Party Political football match which serves only to enthral the media and the camp followers; and last but not least (and a particular concern of mine as a former policy advisor), the failure to base much political policy and decision making on the best independent evidence available (of which there is plenty).
In my view the political system of this country is not only creaking, but the wheels are coming off completely.
We know that there has been a long-term decline of political party membership and involvement, which again the Labour Party under Corbyn has done much to revive, but political parties no longer represent a clear constituency in the way that they might have done in, say, the first half of the 20th Century. Rather, they are playing a kind of Party Political football game where the prize is, not surprisingly, winning that game rather than (necessarily) creating the best solution for the country as a whole. Party political advantage is the constant goal, whether by populist appeal or by triangulating different interests to appeal to the majority. Such considerations will more often than not over-ride rational analysis of the benefits and costs of different actions. Political prejudice will trump rational evidence.
The media understand this only too well. Political intrigue, heightened by political personalities pursuing their own interests, is the stuff of political reporting. It is taken largely for granted that this is how western democracy – which we champion so strongly for other regimes – works. Churchill famously argued that democracy may be very flawed, but it is better than the alternative of communism. And most people would agree with that. But does it mean that it cannot be radically improved?
I believe that the Churchillian stance has led us into huge complacency about the strengths of our representative democracy, and our ability to `muddle through`. The view from inside the big tent of governance is often less sanguine. For those involved in the analysis and implementation of policy – civil servants, local government officials, non-governmental bodies and the like – political decision making often looks inept, incoherent and counter-productive. The Coalition and Conservative Government`s policy forays into health, education, and planning – to name just three – are the product of simplistic templates concocted in ideologically driven think-tanks and littered with decisions and actions which are wasteful, inconsistent, and ineffective. They simply have not been thought through in a practical way. The aims and objectives may have been laudable, although not always to be found on any election manifesto. But the policy decisions have been characterised by a spiteful trashing of previous policies and an immature desire to achieve fundamental reforms within a few months rather than an intelligent analysis of the problems and design of effective solutions. What is so upsetting for those `inside the tent` is that much of the relevant research and the know-how is readily available. We have shedloads of studies and analysis. If some of this knowledge does see the light of the day it is highly channelled and selected, often to back up a political hobby –horse rather than genuinely offer a range of evaluated alternatives. Favourite think-tanks and favoured political advisors are at the front of this particular queue of informed counsel. (I illustrate this point in a more detailed Case Study in the Appendix).
Although specific reforms have been put forward for, say, alternative voting systems, the House of Lords, and party funding, there has been little popular appetite for radical reform. The referendum on PR rejected it. People have just switched off. Paradoxically, perhaps, the popular view is that politics is beyond reform. It is something we must put up with, like the weather.
I think this is dangerous. In the UK we, along with much of the rest of the world, are still struggling with the biggest economic crisis in generations. Global capitalism, which roundly triumphed over the collective models of communism in the 20th Century, is itself now facing an existential crisis. Sovereign nations struggle to cope with massive debt and the EU is in disarray. International financial markets are on a roller coaster of uncertainty about the future. There are political and economic arguments about the balance between austerity and growth, but no agreed analysis or solutions. Political activity is focused on shoring up the banks and assuaging the markets, while `ordinary` people look on, disgusted but helpless. Greece (and possibly Spain) have produced arenas where the rage of the majority is pitted against the demands of the market for debt reduction.
I believe that if we are to deal effectively with the huge economic, social and environmental challenges we face in the years ahead – not just living standards but social equity and the effects of climate change, for example – we will need much better political mechanisms for making fair and effective policies and decisions.
What is to be done?
The Need for Radical Reform
I believe that there are three key areas in need of radical reform in the political system: firstly, the need to strengthen the link between people and governance, both through representation and participation in central and more devolved local government; secondly, the need to strengthen the role of independent evidence as the basis of sound policy; and thirdly, to strengthen the quality and integrity of political leadership, based on national interest rather than party political advantage.
These objectives are interlinked. They point towards a fairer, more rational system of making and taking political policies and decisions. But how can they be achieved? What would it mean in practice? And how might we get there?
Taking these objectives in turn, firstly it means strengthening the role of the electorate in making an input to political decision-making, through electing representatives on the basis of the numbers of votes received, ie a new PR system; following the Scottish Referendum and the emergence of the `English Question` it means devolving much more real power to local (and regional) government , including the power to raise local taxes, thereby attracting much more interest in voting by the electorate; and it means increasing the opportunities for the electorate to participate in everyday policy and decision making, especially through direct social media and digital access, at national and local levels.
Secondly, and contrary to the views of many populist politicians, it means strengthening the role of the `expert advisors`- drawn from a wide range of knowledge in academia, business and the arts – not in terms of taking decisions, but through a more rigorous, independent preparation and analysis of the evidence on which policies and decisions taken by elected representatives would be required to be based. So the government would no longer be able to introduce policies or make decisions that have not been rigorously informed and tested by independent evidence. Again, this rule would apply at national and local levels.
Thirdly, and perhaps most fundamentally, it means changing the way governments are formed. Instead of the winning Party – increasingly likely to be a minority winner – appointing the Executive ( Prime Minister and Departmental Ministers) the latter would be elected by the elected representatives as a whole, ie Parliament, thereby strengthening the sovereignty of the latter and bringing to an end the damaging impacts of Party Rule alluded to earlier in this paper. This way the `Prime Minister`, elected by the elected representatives, would act as Chair or Convenor of Departmental Heads, whose role would be to design and present polices and decisions to Parliament based on the independent evidence prepared by the `expert advisors`. In a parallel move, the House of Lords would be replaced by a second `People`s Parliament` , drawn from the widest possible range of the public community, using digital technology to participate, for example via online petitions , as a key input into the policy making process.
A New Politics
Introducing PR, limiting Party political power by Parliamentary sovereignty, devolving real power to more local levels, strengthening the role of expert advisors, replacing the House of Lords by a `People`s Parliament – these are radical and ambitious proposals. They are aimed at reviving a moribund democratic process both by connecting people to political policies and decisions in a more direct way, representing them in a fairer way, and ensuring that such policies and decisions are based on the best evidence.
What are the desired outcomes? The democratic link with voters would be strengthened by focusing on the credentials of individual candidates in terms of their values and beliefs. Monolithic Political Parties would be rivalled or even replaced by political `Movements` expressing particular ideas and values – on the environment, the economy, Europe and so on. Individual candidates might stand on a combination of these movements, rather than one Party. Proportional Representation would be introduced to widen the mix of interests. Thus voters could vote for individual representatives (at all levels) rather than a national party. The elected representatives would in turn be free to vote for the executive government positions according to their own judgements, based on the qualities and experience of their peers. In this way the almost total power of the governing Party to rule through its own appointments would be broken, allowing a richer mix of views and experience, informed by independent expertise, to prevail.
So while retaining and indeed strengthening the democratic link between the people and their representatives, this new approach also strengthens the autonomy of individual elected representatives. They would be free to promote and defend a range or package of policies, and vote for who they think would best lead the country. Of course new Parties may emerge with packages of policies which become popular, although it is more likely that a larger array of Parties would form, along with Independents. No doubt` deals` would be done and `factions` form, possibly in a continuously changing formation of Coalition Governments. But crucially, the power and sovereignty of the elected Parliament would be strengthened, subject to the peer scrutiny of elected representatives, and the peer review of best evidence.
That evidence would be drawn from the wide range and depth of knowledge and analysis available to them on practically every topic under the sun- from government bodies, from academics, from independent think-tanks and NGOs. The Civil Service`s job would be to harness that huge range of information in as objective and independent way as possible – a role very different from focusing on the implementation of government policy. Indeed these two roles would have to be divided. The former task would be in effect a Secretariat to a high quality `Advisory Commission` (working title) operating in a scientific way, drawing upon the best peer- reviewed evidence. Rather than Government drawing upon its favourite, often idiosyncratic, sources, it would be informed by the best scientific evidence available from a wide range of sources, open to all.
But there would also be a direct participatory route to policy and decision-making, via the` People`s Parliament`. This would provide a voice for all, in person or online, through petitions on any subject, which would form an input to the political process, alongside the evidence provided by the Advisory Commission.
Given the importance of devolving power in a reformed English constitution (in whatever form it eventually takes) this triple track of elected representatives , advisory commissioners and participatory channels would operate at all levels – neighbourhood (eg parish), local authority and/or region/sub-region; nation; In this way the vertical connections between locality and country should be strengthened.
What would it look (and feel) like?
So, on election day in 2020 (well let`s be optimistic!) you would have the opportunity to vote (electronically if you wish) for a candidate at local and national (and supra-national) levels (eg neighbourhood/parish councillor, local authority councillor, city/sub-regional commissioner, national elected representative) through a reformed system of PR. Each candidate would be proclaiming his/her beliefs and values through membership of a political party and/or political `movements`. They would be drawing upon the best evidence supplied by the Advisory Commission, openly accessible and peer-reviewed. Your vote would go to the candidate who best expresses your views and beliefs, and/or whose judgement you trust. The successful candidates would in turn be voting for who they think best would lead the government, together with a slate of key Ministers of State (or LA /regional Depts). Government would be truly run by `all the talents`, but also reflecting more truly the politically expressed beliefs and values of the electorate. At the same time you would have access to channels (physical and electronic) for expressing your views directly on particular issues you feel and know strongly about, in particular through the new `People`s Parliament `.
How Would We Get There?
It is not hard identify some difficult hurdles on the way to implementing the approach I am outlining. PR has already been rejected by public referendum, but as Vernon Bognador eloquently argues (Prospect February 2015) the growing dissonance between votes cast and seats won in a multi-party election makes the case ever more powerful. And given the growing likelihood and relevance of coalition government it would be an important step on the road to arguing for the resulting bigger mix of parties (or `movements`) to elect the Executive from their peers, rather than a hastily formed coalition of parties cobbling it together. One party – The Greens – have already proposed such a move, as part and parcel of restoring the authentic sovereignty of Parliament. But obviously this is not likely to happen any time soon, and only over the dead bodies of some entrenched party politicians. Nor would it entirely remove the dangers of unholy machinations taking place on the parliamentary floor in the selection process.
Another objection is likely to be that the Executive may be an election of all the talents, but may not create a coherent `team`. Ed Miliband moved to change this arrangement so that he could appoint his own Cabinet. But here we are back to the political football match. The `team` may best represent a particular political `movement`, but is it really in the best interests of the country? Is it more likely to respond to the evidence presented by their official Advisors, rather than a broader church elected by their peers? Recent experience of a Prime Minister guided by a closely-knit team of advisors, and then securing majority support through a very unholy alliance with an extreme right wing party in Northern Ireland is a case in point.
A more substantive criticism is that too much power will be given over to the `experts`, who notoriously do not always agree themselves. Nor can they always present clear `objective` solutions. However, what they can do is assess the evidence from all sources within and outside government, in an open and transparent way. And that evidence would be subject to peer scrutiny, and to the scientific approach– the Popperian concept that as far as possible it will only be valid as long as it is `falsifiable`, and that the `truth` proceeds by trial and error. No individual or organisation would “always know best” – the traditional reference to the men in Whitehall.
Finally, would today`s society accept the abolition of the presidential style election? No more the search for televisual charismatic leaders, no more the X-factor contest between competing politicians. The media would of course hate this. Politics would be seen to be even duller than it is now. The `personality` would be taken out of the politics. Given the record of the last few decades in the UK, I think it is hard to argue that the choice of leader by the population at large has resulted in a positive benefit to policies and decisions. Curiously, Corbyn – like Attlee- succeeded in getting his message through without the obvious characteristics of `charisma`. But that is a question for a long and difficult debate. My argument here is that this kind of popular voting is best restricted to sport, entertainment, and celebrity culture, not the political leadership of a complex western democracy.
A better democratic model
In this essay I am arguing for a better model of democracy which makes far better use of the knowledge, skills and understanding we have over vast areas of economic, social and environmental issues. Ignoring this evidence is too frequent in our political culture, for the tribal reasons I have outlined. By strengthening the link between policy and evidence, and strengthening the link between voter and politicians, I believe that we could make much better decisions for the good of our society. Those decisions will never be always` right`: they will change as new evidence is gathered, and they will be interpreted differently by different value systems and cultures. But they will be much better than many of the tribal, prejudiced, and populist decisions made today, under cover of a complacent and cynical acceptance of the conditions of democracy.
This model will call for radical and far-reaching changes. It is unashamedly idealistic. Some might say it is utopian. But in my view we need such fundamental reforms of this kind if we are to deal rationally and fairly with the huge social, economic and environmental challenges which we face in the years ahead.
Trevor Cherrett BA, Dip Ed Man, MRTPI
Emms House, Emms Lane, Bratton, Westbury, Wiltshire BA13 4SA
Tel: 01380 830235; 07770 895277
Sessional Lecturer, University of Reading
Policy Council Member, Town and Country Planning Association
Advisor, Wessex Rural and Farming Network, Rural Services Network
Chairman, Wiltshire Community Land Trust
Board Member, Wiltshire Rural Housing Association
Appendix 1: Nowhere Plans
As an example of inept political policy making, let me take planning, where I have some specialist knowledge. The Coalition Government came in with a twin agenda of reducing top –down planning by decree (exemplified by regional housing targets), reducing planning restrictions on economic growth, and introducing more powers at the very local neighbourhood level. Laudable aims, you might think. To achieve this they abolished many national advisory quangos and all regional machinery (including Regional Development Agencies responsible for major economic investment), and created neighbourhood forums with powers to carry out Neighbourhood Plans and other local initiatives. The result has been the greatest years of chaos in the planning and development world since the 2nd World War- which is some achievement given the many attempts since then to make the planning system speedier, more effective, transparent etc etc. Thus, the abolition of regional housing targets created a policy vacuum which has been successfully challenged by house-builders in the law courts; a new presumption in favour of (undefined) sustainable development has been interpreted by many conservationists as a green light to develop green fields not protected by special status. Millions of people, such as members of the National Trusts, were mobilised to oppose the reforms. Meanwhile the proposed local Neighbourhood Plans come with so many technical requirements, and so little power over existing Local Authority Plans  , that it is unlikely that the `Big Society` is going to commit itself to such burdensome tasks anytime soon. And the likely outcome is more planning by appeal – expensive, wasteful and time-consuming.
The truth is that an incoming Government saw what it thought was an opportunity to slash and burn its way through a much criticised planning system, and invent a new one which would deliver its cherished goal of `localism` via the new Big Society. In practice, the new system lacks any vision for the future of the country in the face of enormous demographic change, economic crisis, and environmental challenges; it lacks clarity on how the system will operate, especially in terms of coordinated action between authorities; and whilst its much vaunted local neighbourhood involvement has made considerable progress, it is a long way off providing comprehensive local plan coverage.
More sensibly, it could have achieved many if not all of its aims by substantially modifying the existing system; by streamlining national policy as attempted, but by incorporating a contemporary and meaningful description of what is meant by sustainable development; by retaining at least some outline guidance on spatial housing targets and economic development at regional (or sub-regional) level to provide a framework within which Local Planning Authorities and developers could operate; and radically strengthening neighbourhood engagement with and input to local plans.
As it is, many aspect of the inherited system are now being re-invented to make the system work: top-down directives from the Dept of Communities and Local Government on housing numbers; new funds to boost regional economic development; and fundamentally reviewing the role and powers of Local Plans (perceived to be failing ) and Neighbourhood Plans (perceived to be succeeding).
The pros and cons can be argued. My point here is that there were many experienced and expert professionals from all quarters to advise the Government on how to achieve the outcomes it desired. They were largely ignored. Why? Because, in my view, a macho political culture demanded wholesale change. That change was predicated on untested think-tank ideas formulated from theoretical text-books rather than (ironically in view of English poiticians` well know distaste for theory) `what works`. It was not interested in ideas `not invented here`. Seasoned professionals watch in disbelief (and try, as professionals do, to make it work).
I am sure there is a similar story in Health, Education and other policy areas. Leaving aside the blatant democratic deficiency incurred by many of these new policies not being mentioned in any election Manifesto, what can be done about this woeful situation? I believe that radical changes are needed in the relationship between political decision – taking and the way that such decisions are informed by evidence., ie the decision-making process, in ways which strengthen rather than weaken the democratic link between government and the people. This may sound like a dry managerial, technocratic process. In practice it would have far-reaching implications not only for how politicians relate to the agencies of governance but also their relationship with the people they represent.
 Eg Green Belts, National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Beauty and SSSIs