The main political parties have all been jostling to respond to the ’cost of living crisis’. But they’ve all failed to respond to the underlying issue - that in the eyes of voters (or more often, non-voters), the political class lives on another planet. Here are five proposals that might help.
The cost of living crisis isn’t just about electricity price hikes or train fare increases, important though these are. At root it’s about how, from the public’s perspective, today’s politicians just don’t ‘get it’ - that policymakers are too removed from their lives and so don’t understand what really matters to ‘ordinary people’ (hence the recent trend of interviewers asking politicians about whether they know the price of a pint of milk or a loaf of bread).
This explains why, even while politicians vie to out-popularise each other with ‘distraction issues’ (immigration, Europe) or temporary micro-measures (from caps on energy bills to petrol price rise freezes) driven by feedback from focus groups, they see their popularity sink ever lower. According to annual Hansard Society research, half of Britons think MPs put their own interests first, while less than 10 per cent think MPs put the interests of their constituents first (the 2013 survey recorded new lows in terms of people’s propensity to vote).
Without higher levels of trust, people won’t believe anything you say. You won’t even get credit for what you do. It might be going too far to suggest that the UK political class’s mode of (increasingly disconnected and self-referential) political and managerial control are disturbingly familiar with that of the old Soviet Union, as former civil servant as well as academic Ron Amann has argued. But it does serve to indicate the depth of the crisis the political class finds itself in.
The first step, then, is to fix the political class’s fundamental credibility problem, and more specifically, to reconnect policymakers with the public. Ted Cantle’s excellent recent article on open Democracy discusses this issue very perceptively - and I’ll quote from it at length here as a starting-point for my own reflections. To Cantle:
“The falling level of trust in our politicians, declining membership of mainstream political parties, low voter turnout, and the growth of populist and extremist parties and groups, should all be regarded as dangerous warning signs of democracy under threat. Yet little thought seems to have been given to the idea of ‘reconnecting our political class’ and whether they can re-build confidence in their abilities, enthuse citizens and offer convincing evidence that the democratic process can represent their views and respond to their aspirations.”
Cantle’s own prescriptions are sensible but perhaps fail to match the depth of the crisis he describes. Limiting politicians’ terms of office to 10 years, providing each MP with an office on the local high street, requiring MPs to job share, work part-time and take sabbaticals, hustings for candidates and primaries as in the US system - all good ideas, but big enough?
Politicians recognise the need for ‘headline policies’ that ‘cut through’ to a largely disengaged public - so here are five proposals for fixing the political class itself.
1. MPs’ backgrounds and experience
The public feels that politicians aren’t like us - and they’re largely right. Here’s Ted Cantle’s way of putting it:
“…one of the most serious problems that politicians face is that they have become a closed professional group who mostly relate to themselves and their media and policy advisers within their ‘Westminster Bubble’. Most new politicians are recruited from that same small coterie and expect to stay there for life. Being surrounded by a like-minded - and often a sycophantic and set of wannabes - is a recipe for retrenchment, not renewal. And whatever happened to the notion of representativeness?”
But in terms of possible solutions, let’s avoid the ‘all working-class shortlists’ approach, which is surely an admission of failure. Let’s also recognise society has changed. There might be far fewer MPs who are former steel mill workers or miners - but then there are far fewer steel mill workers and miners anyway. And it matters less if a person is ’posh’. What really matters is their ability to empathise and to understand others’ lives - something which background can inform but not dictate.
Instead of trying (and failing) to broaden MPs’ backgrounds, let’s broaden their experiences. Make MPs undertake a few weeks’ of mandatory ‘work experience’ each year in ‘ordinary professions’ and environments (the same should go for senior policy advisors as well). This also has the advantage of being an argument many MPs have already made, albeit in relation to their existing ‘outside interests’.
2. MPs’ pay
Yes, there is a legitimate argument that MPs should be paid more, and yes, the expenses scandal was in part an outcome of ‘depressing’ MPs’ pay because of the public’s antipathy to paying them more. But again, the fundamental issue that needs resolving is the public’s view that MPs don’t do what the public have to - real work that provides a real view of the world.
Some might say introduce performance-related pay, but then how to determine ‘performance’ (to constituency, party, government, Parliament)? But isn’t the real ‘performance-related pay’ being able to throw out your MP at the next election (a fairly brutal form of employee exit)? Others might suggest indexing MPs’ pay to the minimum wage/living wage/average wage, but this risks recreating the problem that led to the expenses scandal in the first place (MPs feeling that the ’perks’ were a legitimate part of their salary and claiming all they could).
The better answer is greater transparency. Being an MP is hard work. The public needs a better view of what MPs actually do all day. (For people who need to be good communicators, politicians are pretty bad at communicating about themselves). They Work for You is great for researching MPs and their voting records. But it’s still very Westminster-focused. What we need is a ‘What Have They Done for You?’ - an objective, crowd-sourced TripAdvisor for MPs that records how they’ve tried to help their constituents (and what their constituents think about them).
3. Party donations
Akin to the MPs expenses scandal, the reason that party funding scandals have recurred in the past (and will again in the future) is that parties need funding - for political advertising, central administration and databases, party workers, expenses and so on. Some of these costs remain relatively fixed even though party membership continues to decline, which drives parties into the hands of large donors (corporates, trade unions), which in turn further depresses the willingness of people to join parties (why join if the big donors dictate the policies?)
Part of the answer lies then in reducing the need for big money in the first place. Ban expensive political advertising (newspaper ads, billboards and TV broadcasts) - after all, don’t politicians get enough airtime already with their rehearsed talking-points? Further, since public services are often preached to by politicians about the benefits of ’economies of scale’ and shared services (for example, local authorities consolidating some of their ‘back room’ functions), why not do the same for the central administration of political parties? (This might even be a way that limited state funding could be sold to a sceptical public - the price of some limited state funding being far less corruption and not having to avoid political ads at election time). Lastly, only allow small donations from individuals, which might encourage parties to think more seriously about how they operate such that people would want to join in mass numbers once again - for example through community organising approaches (it might be reasonable to restrict what small donations could be spent on to these local community organisers and offices - so local money is spent locally).
Despite the recent and on-going debate about the Lobbying Bill, the problem isn’t the rules regulating lobbying. Rather the problem is lobbying itself - the behind-the-scenes meetings and privileged access given to some organisations and not others (including, most recently, through the ‘sponsored’ events organised by think tanks at party conferences).
Obviously (you would think at least), no-one should be able to lobby government without it being clear who funds them. But in addition, the entire policymaking process should be much more transparent – about how were policies developed, by whom, with what evidence, and why alternatives were rejected. Most importantly, policy needs to be open to ‘guerilla’ campaigns – independent, self-organised, genuinely popular movements. A register of lobbyists, however broad and comprehensive, won’t in itself counter the fundamental inequalities in wealth and influence that exists between well-funded corporate campaigns and (groups of) ordinary people who want to inform policy (though it would some kind of a start).
For these reasons, even with a comprehensive register, let’s recognise that lobbying isn’t at risk from corruption – it is corruption. In truth, in this context, we don’t need lobbying to be more ‘transparent’, we need to end behind-the-scenes lobbying in its entirety. If you’re attempting to influence public policy, you should have no right to be concerned about your activities being wholly public. Companies, organisations, campaigns and individuals should contribute to public hearings – any other interactions with government should be the rare (openly publicised and fully documented) exception.
The disjuncture between how people expect organisations to recognise and respond to their individual preferences, and how political parties and policymaking operate, is becoming ever wider and more unavoidable. We live in the 21st century. Political parties essentially live in the 19th. To Ted Cantle:
“We need to change both the institutional arrangements and the culture of politics. Technology has transformed communications, even to the point of enabling new and different forms of protest. Politicians have not come to terms with this in the West and even less in developing countries. The rise of viral social media campaigns, e-petitions, bystander photo-journalism, hacked official files and emails, use of global databases and more besides, rather puts trudging off to a dreary polling station once every few years in the shade! Moreover, it has challenged the omnipotence of the political class and their control of information flows. However, rather than recognise the change and try to use emerging technology to engage more people in different ways, politicians have tended to cling to traditional methods and lament the passing of their established practices.”
The current Government has made some steps towards the future, but only tentative ones - from online petitions to prompt debates in Parliament to the Red Tape Challenge (albeit set by politicians). What it has done however, as we’ve considered here many times, is set out quite a radical idea about ‘open policymaking’. Now it needs to act on it.
Some might say that the public’s disillusionment with politicians has gone so far and reached such depths that these types of measures wouldn’t change anything - that the public has given-up on the political class for good. Perhaps. But isn’t it incumbent on political leaders to try to fix the situation they’ve created? And with regards to open policymaking and the other issues discussed here, the sense generated by the recent party conferences isn’t that the public has given-up on politicians, so much as it’s the politicians that have given-up on the public.