The monthly Democracy Café meeting was held at the Playhouse, with a big turnout of regulars and new faces. The two topics voted for discussion were “Is the role of your MP to represent the country, the party, the constituency or his/her conscience?” and “Universal Credit: is it a good policy?”
On the first topic, it was agreed that as “our representative” MPs will be torn between different demands; plus, in the case of Salisbury’s MP, the demands of being in the government, which disqualifies the member from independent thinking. Much of their time is taken up on local constituency work – should this be the case? The Scottish system of two tiers of government was mentioned as a possible solution. The idea of a random selection of MPs was mooted, as well as smaller constituencies and more members (with salary reduced as they advance up the hierarchy!)
There was debate about whether behaviour in parliament was getting worse – compared to the 19th century perhaps not – and it was admitted that the elected representatives are vulnerable and under pressure. But improvements could be made, either through relocation, updating procedure (with modern technology) or making the chamber less adversarial (more like the continental horseshoe model).
The relation of parties to democracy was discussed. Do we need leaders unbeholden to their parties? Or do parties keep politicians in line, preventing volatility? MPs or party members may elect their leaders – which is the better system? It was noted that local councils are getting rid of their chief executives and relying on the cabinet method. Generally, the feeling was that we are not best served by the way things are run at present.
The second topic, Universal Credit, brought about much debate as to the theoretical ideas against the reality in practice. As an attempt to bring together all the different benefits currently applicable, with the explicit intention of making work pay, the idea has merit. But this is a middle-class model that brings problems in practice (e.g. delays in payment may be manageable for the better-off but not for the hard-pressed, not everyone has online access, it’s unfair for the disabled, high housing costs affect people’s budgets).
The debate went on to ask some basic questions. Is rewarding work necessarily a good idea anyway? And what sort of work are we trying to get people into? The philosophy behind UC has never been clear, other than to make the system simpler (but see above re practical difficulties).
Going on from this, the meeting wondered whether we are trying to punish people? Is this the traditional “punishing the poor” idea? The Universal Credit system did not initiate a punitive structure but it does not need to continue it. There is little discretion in the process, and no way to opt out from it; it was also felt that it is being used as a means of getting people off the system.
It was noted that the largest part of the benefit system goes on pensions, not the workforce, but this is never brought into the discussion of welfare. It was suggested that the long-term answer might be Universal Basic Income, as a way of obviating poverty.
The debate concluded with the question : “What would you say to your MP about UC?“ The implication is that they do not know what is going on. The welfare system should start from the working people, who are the ones affected. Politicians are not always aware of the experience of the real world (only 7 MPs turned up to the last debate on poverty).
In conclusion, while it was agreed that there were some good aspects to Universal Credit, it was not felt to have been thought through, and the effects on those going through the system outweigh its advantages.