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MICHAEL MANSFIELD I see the forthcoming election as a marvellous opportunity to reinvigorate our democracy and infuse it with some real meaning for the electorate. Since the second world war we have gradually degenerated into a centralised, presidential form of government, essentially run by the prime minister representing one of the two major parties. Meanwhile the two parties themselves have steadily become indistinguishable for all practical purposes, in order to capture what they have perceived to be the middle ground. We now have a one-party state. Strangely, it was Lord Hailsham who reputedly characterised this development as an elected dictatorship. Others have observed that if voting were to change anything they’d make it illegal!
There are a number of obvious reasons for this decline. The voting system itself is grossly unfair. The number of votes cast for a particular party is not reflected in the number of seats obtained. The present Labour government only secured 35 per cent of the votes but gained 55 per cent of the seats. According to a survey of 36 democracies cited by Professor Paul Whiteley of Essex University, the UK is second to bottom of the league in terms of this electoral non-correlation or distortion. It undermines the legitimacy of any government’s claim to have a popular mandate.
Once elected, the party of government is largely determined by one person, the prime minister. The constitutional position is quite indefensible given the range of prerogative powers that can be exercised without the need for parliamentary consent. If any lessons are to be learnt from the Chilcot inquiry, it has become clear that Blair, supported by a coterie of spin doctors, conducted what has been termed ‘sofa politics’. This enabled him to keep a very tight control on all major decisions, and in the case of the Iraq war he managed to foist his decision upon a subservient Cabinet and a cowed House of Commons.
He misled both, not only about the nature and quality of the intelligence surrounding WMD, but also about the evolving nature of the legal advice. Both he and Jack Straw marginalised or dismissed legal opinions to the contrary in a high-handed and cavalier manner. Nothing can be more serious for our so-called developed and sophisticated democracy than the fact that, when the chips were down, there were only a few lone voices that could penetrate the blanket of obfuscation. Worse still, there has subsequently been a dogged unwillingness to recognise these shortcomings. The position of the Tories on all these matters has been no better, and has only got more critical with the benefit of hindsight. In any event, let us not forget the Conservative government’s machinations over Suez and the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands war.
The overarching theme running through these events is a ‘lamentable’ lack of accountability (to adopt an epithet used by Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the Foreign Office lawyer who had the courage of her convictions to resign). Public opinion has been regularly disregarded or brushed aside. The anger engendered by this is tangible. Having spoken at a large number of public meetings throughout the autumn of 2009, I became acutely aware of this constant refrain. People do not feel that their views, let alone votes, matter.
Hot on the heels of this feeling, there comes an even greater anger compounded by the MPs’ expenses scandal. Both the major parties are caught up in this and the public rightly regard it as nothing short of corruption. Of course it is not the first time that we have been treated to such a spectacle. John Major’s government faced the ‘cash for questions’ debacle; Tony Blair squirmed his way around the Bernie Ecclestone £1 million donation to the Labour Party.
It is instructive to note the history of the present revelations. Initially there was an attempt to deny access to the relevant information by a challenge in the courts. This failed and thereafter publication was deferred and delayed, no doubt while minions were running round in small circles attempting to redact embarrassing material. Fortunately they were pre-empted by the timely intervention of the Daily Telegraph. Now the latest suggestion is that MPs might escape liability by invoking parliamentary privilege.
For me, not only as a long term Labour supporter but also as a lawyer, the most reprehensible aspects have concerned the way in which the human rights agenda has been manipulated and undermined, both here and abroad, first by the government and then by the opposition. The decision to go to war was itself a serious affront to the rule of law and the authority of the United Nations. But it does not end there. The UK colluded on an array of thoroughly unlawful activities: Guantanamo Bay, rendition, torture, and within the UK the quite untenable regime of foreign nationals detained in Belmarsh followed by draconian control orders, in addition to proposals for 90-day pre-charge detention.
Besides scathing judgements from the House of Lords on the detention and control order regimes, Mr Justice Sullivan handed down a searing attack on the unlawful decision-making process undertaken by a succession of Labour home secretaries in relation to asylum claims. The catalogue of the erosions is immense. Fundamental protections have been watered down relating to the onus and standard of proof, the role of the jury and the quality of evidence. At the same time, the power of information gathering and intrusion has been extended, right through to an extraordinarily pernicious initiative – the Prevent Agenda.
Indeed, the basic right of a citizen to participate in collective and mass peaceful protest has become a risky and fragile exercise. The ultimate insult to all this injury is the demise of legal aid across a whole range of important areas where vulnerability for ordinary people is at its greatest. The response of the opposition has been virtually non-existent on these issues and equally bad when the Tories were in power, such as their abolition of the right to silence. It reached a nadir at the time of the Conservative Party conference last autumn, when David Cameron mooted, as one of his priorities, the abolition of the Human Rights Act. Somehow he felt it would be necessary to withdraw from the Lisbon Treaty. This was about as flaky as his recent volte farce over the economy.
It took other, more knowledgeable members of his party to point out that some of the most significant contributions in the post-war years to the construction of human rights legislation had come from Tory statesmen.
For all these reasons the stranglehold of the two established parties has to be broken. The old order has to be well and truly booted out to enable fresh minds to take stock of the crisis in confidence and political bankruptcy that has occurred. They have to discover the hard way that they do not enjoy a divine right to rule. This is a lesson they will only begin to appreciate once they realise they have not been elected.
The cover of the last edition of Red Pepper posed the question ‘Can the people take back power?’ The individual voter at this election has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make a real difference and drive home a clear message. Do not vote for candidates from either of the two major parties unless there are exceptional reasons.
This is not quite the Australian ballot paper option -‘none of the above’. There are plenty of respectable alternatives without engaging with the mad fringe.
A parliament in which neither of the two usual suspects is given the run of the mill will provide one of the most salutary and educative experiences it is possible to deliver. It will need courage to do this, and old habits die hard, but there is no need to take fright. The roof will not fall in any further than it has already.
Other democracies survive quite healthily while having to forge coalitions and take account of diversity. I vote for an interregnum while they all go back to the drawing board, examine their consciences, and begin to act like principled human beings.
MELISSA BENN Long ago, as an A-level student of 19th-century European history, I had to answer an exam question: ‘France is bored. Discuss.’ A few weeks ago it looked as if Britain was bored with New Labour. Like a play that has gone on too long, the nation seemed impatient of the central characters in the drama, their apparently fatal compromises and stale dilemmas.
This is not just politics as soap opera, although there are alarming soap opera elements in the pre-election scene. But now opinion is shifting once again: the lead between the two main parties is closing and there is widespread anticipation of a hung parliament.
Of course, there are very good reasons for the public’s ennui and apparent electoral paralysis. The continuing fall out over the disastrous Iraq war, the bail out to bankers without due consequences and recent research pointing up the growth of income inequalities constitute some of the more pressing reasons why people now want a change.
So, to paraphrase the journalist John Harris’s question of 2005, who do we, on the broad left, vote for now?
It feels too easy, in every way, to answer, as Mike Mansfield does, nobody. Or, not Labour. Mike advocates a form of grand refusal, sparking a brief period of chaos from which a new radicalism, and possibly a new electoral system, can emerge.
I tend to think somewhat more prosaically in my middle age. Chaos will only benefit the forces of conservatism. Do what Mike says and we risk a Tory government.
I will return to the very real dangers of Cameron’s Tories, and the forces they will unleash, in a moment.
First, let me say, there is much in Mike’s critique that I agree with. Under both real and imagined threats, Labour has dangerously curtailed our civil liberties. The Iraq war remains a massive, tragic mistake. I too dislike the predominance of ‘sofa government’, a rather disingenuous label for essentially undemocratic rule by a macho cabal, and the corresponding decline of genuine cabinet government.
Incidentally (although it is not incidental at all), women in politics have lost most from this inner sanctum approach to power. Never ‘one of us’, always overlooked and too easily derided, the gaudy promise of ‘Blair’s Babes’ has given way to the seedy reality of male business as usual, at least at the top of politics.
However, I would question whether the expenses scandal is on a par with the outright corruption of the cash-for-questions of the Neil Hamilton era. Certainly, it revealed some MPs to be greedy, but many of them operated within the rules as then existed (lax and misguided as these may have been). There has been a distinctly sanctimonious tone to the never-ending press and public outrage. The now widespread view that our democratic representatives can’t be trusted, by definition, is dangerous for us all and for the future health of our democracy.
At the same time, I sense a kind of displacement in the unending public fury at MPs. It’s as if anger at widespread inequality in income and life chances has become directed at those who have not tackled it (Labour) or those who blithely benefit from privilege (the Tories). The parliamentary expenses system is not to blame for that; it is the politics, or lack of it, that guide our parliamentary system that needs tackling.
But let’s also acknowledge, Mike, the many admirable things that Labour has achieved since 1997 – from tax credits for poorer families to the giant leaps in the infrastructure of child care, from massive investment in our public services to the dismantling of section 28 and the introduction of civil partnerships.
I was speaking to an MP from the north east the other day and he said, ‘I only have to walk round my constituency to see the changes that a Labour government has made.’ And let’s at least credit Brown and Darling with the vision and nerve to lead us, and most of Europe, out of a potentially terrifying economic collapse, even if governments everywhere were unable to hold capitalism to greater account in the ensuing months and years.
Yes, there have been failures, notably the over-enthusiastic embrace of the choice/market agenda in health and education.
Even here, however, if you look at recent policy on education, the move towards fairer school admissions and the emphasis on collaboration rather than competition between schools, it is obvious that Brown is more willing to use the power of the state to promote fairness than Blair was.
So why vote Labour? First, we desperately need to keep out the Tories. Should Cameron be elected, the difference between the parties, including the rather nasty rightist hinterland that always emerges with a Tory victory, already evident in the party’s European ties, will become obvious within months.
As the economy has worsened, Cameron’s pseudo-progressive sheen has faded fast. In his own words, about education, a Tory government will be ‘unashamedly elitist’. From fox hunting to marriage, it will aim to restore the traditional established order. One of the reasons the Tories can so easily propose draconian cuts in public services is their visceral disconnection from the lives of millions of public sector workers. This is indeed the party of unabashed privilege.
Second, arguing for a fourth term for Labour does not constitute a passive acceptance or sanctioning of all that has gone before. It is not a call for more of the New Labour same. It is both a recognition of the fundamentally different traditions, ties, and values that historically define and still motivate Labour, that require our support at an important moment, and a demand for change as the recently announced Compass group initiative ‘Transforming Labour’ suggests.
Income inequalities must be reduced, public services protected and improved, and imaginative schemes put in place for new, pressing social problems, such as long term care for the elderly. Indeed, Brown’s ‘death tax’ scheme is already putting the Tories on the defensive.
We need not just new principles but a new political language for the post-Blairite age. Ed Miliband has sensibly spoken of modern Labour values embracing both self interest and shared interest. Whether it is re-elected or consigned to the wilderness, Labour now needs leaders who bring fresh purpose, real imagination and unquestioned human decency to the national political conversation.
MICHAEL MANSFIELD You’re right, Melissa, about what Labour needs now. The same applies to the Tories. Why is this? It’s down to the demise of our moribund democracy due to the manipulation of power by those who have crafted personalised cabinet government for their own ends over the last 30 years. Fresh purpose, real imagination and human decency, along with courage and diversity have been relegated to a few on the back benches where they can be readily contained.
Melissa, I think you may have missed or misunderstood the thrust of my argument. I did not suggest voting for nobody, nor did I give a simple blanket ‘no’ to all Labour MPs anymore than Tory ones. There will be no serious debate about the necessary changes to the electoral system, to the constitutional arrangements concerning prerogative powers and the second chamber (overdue since Henry VIII), or to the role of the cabinet and political preferment, until individual MPs recognise this need.
It certainly won’t happen by voting the same Labour/Tory culprits back in because there’s nothing in it for them. Perpetuating the status quo is the name of their game.
Instead, I am advocating a breathing space to enable a radical overhaul. For this reason I raised the possibility of voting for perfectly respectable third parties, and even for the usual two party suspects where, exceptionally, they have demonstrated a conspicuously principled stand on all fronts. This is not voting for chaos. You cannot mean a vote for the Lib Dems, an honest independent, Respect, socialist candidates or the Greens is a vote for some kind of anarchy. To do so would amount to a denial of the very essence of democracy.
There is an urgency to re-engage with the electorate, to open up new opportunities, to inspire fresh talent and to encourage vision. You misjudge the public mood, which is well beyond the banality of boredom and the frustration of fatigue. It has become actively hostile, rightly indignant and justly distrustful. There is a real hunger for change, not a slight switch of channels to more of the same, to yet another soap opera with different characters but a similar theme. It’s time to transform the transmission.
MELISSA BENN Unfortunately, our democracy doesn’t allow for ‘breathing spaces’ between elections. Yes, the public mood is one of frustration and anger but your strategy still risks the return of a Tory government.
Take a look, Mike, at recent surveys of the opinions of Tory candidates likely to be elected in 2010. More tolerant on questions of private behaviour such as civil partnerships – the big ideological shift of the past decade or so – but nine out of ten want a cap on immigration and to slash public spending rather than raise taxes in order to deal with the deficit. Cameron’s ‘One Nation’ concerns will soon crumble under the combined pressure of the economy and his own backbenchers.
In contrast, many in the Labour party, the wider labour movement and enough of the party’s elected representatives are now moving in the other direction, towards what one Labour blogger has memorably called a ‘preferential option for the poor’.
When the Hills report was published, Harriet Harman said that class would be the defining issue of this election. Too little, too late, many would say, especially coming from a leading member of a government that has presided over rising income inequalities. But Harman’s statement is also a clear sign of the pressure that the public mood, and democracy itself, rightfully exerts. Failure to address class-related issues has been an important factor in the rise of the BNP, one minority party we have failed to discuss here.
Whoever wins the election, the task is now clear: to exert consistent public and campaigning pressure on our politicians, be it for publicly accountable and truly excellent schools, a living wage for all, protection of the NHS, true gender equality or the provision of more affordable housing. As for Labour, it can no longer afford to be covert in its plans for change, too clever by half in its public presentation. As the gap between the parties narrows, Labour should become bolder, not more cautious.
As the election approaches the voters are entitled to ask: after three terms in government, what do you now stand for, what change do you now want to make – and how precisely are you going to achieve it?