Editorial: A new political space

Michael Calderbank, one of Red Pepper's new co-editors, on the need for greater democracy and accountability

August 22, 2009
5 min read


Michael Calderbank is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He is also a parliamentary researcher for a group of trade unions.

Faced with the effects of the financial crisis and with an ecological crisis looming ever closer, the need for a responsive and accountable political system is now posed with renewed urgency. Yet if events have shaken the ideological confidence of Britain’s ruling class, the lack of any viable left alternative at the electoral level means that the neoliberal project, while far from secure, has remained for the moment more or less intact.

Just as the bankers faced a period of public excoriation before gradually returning to their old ways, so too MPs are hopeful that the political storm over expenses will essentially give way to business as usual. Sure, they think that the rotten old constitutional settlement needs a new lick of paint. But they think they can get away without really meaningful changes.

However, the public’s contempt for politicians won’t be remedied by belatedly reforming a system by which they allowed themselves to become engorged at the taxpayers’ expense (quite literally in the case of chief whip Nick Brown, who charged £18,800 for food – not counting restaurant meals for which he submitted separate claims). The real lifeblood of democratic debate is draining away and leaving behind it a body politic that is giving off the unmistakeable stench of decay.

MPs are now widely regarded as a breed apart. Like the bankers, they are seen as a materially privileged class that is totally insulated from the realities of life as the majority experience it. With breathtaking gall, some even suggested that the solution to the expenses issue is a substantial increase in their basic salary! It will take more than a new monitoring body to dissuade disgusted voters from the belief that all MPs have their snouts in the trough.

To achieve this we need representatives who don’t inhabit another economic world from our own. Accepting the ‘worker’s wage’ would be a much clearer way of demonstrating that MPs need not be a parasitical caste lording it over the rest of us.

But even MPs committed to really fighting for the interests of constituents need effective mechanisms in place to allow them to do so. Their job as parliamentarians should be to hold the executive to account.

Without a link between MPs’ power to challenge the government and their ability to take up the cases of individual constituents, backbenchers are just idiosyncratic social workers. The call for a citizen-led campaign to democratise our entire political infrastructure is critical.

We must continue to emphasise that there must be no going back to ‘business as usual’ at Westminster. Their crisis can be turned into our opportunity.

Today’s mainstream political debate only addresses the concerns of a tiny fraction of the electorate, and most people know that their votes essentially count for nothing. Whatever our chosen vehicle for intervening at election time, we face an enormous obstacle to immediate progress in the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system.

Some defenders of the status quo argue that proportional representational favours the BNP. The truth is that Labour’s monopoly of representation in many areas has encouraged it to take for granted working-class support and produced a stagnant political culture in which alternative progressive policies have no voice – just the conditions in which the far right will thrive. Campaigning for systemic political change must be part of our challenge to their appeal. The present lack of a credible left alternative means we need a serious debate over the most effective way of cutting across support for the far right.

Could the foundations for a united, pluralistic left emerge from the struggle to break open the UK electoral space? The campaign for a referendum on electoral reform offers one such opportunity. The value of such campaigning is not entirely dependent on winning a total victory – no one underestimates the difficulties facing a campaign that requires MPs to endanger a system through which many get jobs for life. Yet the very experience of progressives coming together across the boundaries of party allegiance to fight for commonly-agreed aims itself prefigures the type of politics we are trying to create. As Neal Lawson suggests , democracy is not just a convenient means to realise our ends, but incorporates values that are an intrinsic part of the good society itself.

There are precedents for such a dynamic, close at hand. The Scottish Constitutional Convention helped to forge a new political dispensation north of the border. Without idealising the devolution settlement, it has encouraged a positive political realignment involving a greater role for alliances and cross-party co-operation. But the travails of the Scottish Socialist Party also provide a salutary reminder that electoral and constitutional reform is not in itself sufficient to see the radical left make a decisive breakthrough. The need for greater democracy and accountability is just as relevant to our own structures.


Michael Calderbank is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He is also a parliamentary researcher for a group of trade unions.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry