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.