Power to the People not the Political Class
Sunday Mail, March 1st 2015
The airwaves this week have been filled with the sound of politicians crashing and burning.
Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw were caught in yet another ‘cash for access’ scandal, while on the next day, English Green leader Natalie Bennett found it impossible to offer the most basic costings of her party’s housing policies.
These instances – and the reactions of politicians and public to them – raise questions about what kind of politicians voters want to represent them. And what kind of politics. Once upon a time both parliamentarians and public felt they knew the answer to this. No longer.
People can talk about the sad state of the Westminster Parliament and the quality of debates and representatives. But there is a much deeper set of issues. If we look closer to home to the Scottish Parliament or across local government, who beyond a couple of the prominent figures in the main parties shine and connects to people?
Westminster politics have changed dramatically over the long view. But not enough in other ways. In the Victorian age and early 20th century most MPs were amateurs, of inherited or established wealth, who believed they were gentlemen.
MPs were not paid a salary until 1911. Most in those distant days never set foot in their constituencies except at election time, or for an occasional rally, while until the 1960s and 1970s most rarely got much constituency correspondence.
Winston Churchill represented Dundee from 1908-22 but seldom visited the city. One Scots Tory in a selection meeting, when asked if he would give a commitment to live in the constituency, said, ‘I will go one better, I will hunt over the constituency’.
Today MPs must have a high constituency profile, are expected to answer constituent enquiries, and manage a casework of local issues. Yet today’s Commons with its MP salary of £67,060 witnesses a mix of different political styles: for some and particularly the Labour benches the full time professional politician, and for many on the Tory side the combination of being an MP with significant outside earnings. Overall MPs in 2014 spend 26,600 hours and earned £7.4 million representing people other than their constituents.
The political response to Rifkind and Straw fuelled the anti-politician mood of the country at the moment. It did not help that senior Tories such as Michael Heseltine declared that being an MP was ‘a part-time job’, or that government ministers tried to cloud the waters with the argument that they did two jobs: being a minister and MP.
What sort of politician do people want? How can different politicians emerge given the culture of Westminster, political parties and the media? When we look at the record of the Scottish Parliament since 1999 what champions have emerged that people have believed in? Not that many.
Who have made major reputations since the SNP landslide of 2011 brought in a whole swathe of SNP and Labour new representatives? There are the usual references to Labour’s Kezia Dugdale and Jenny Marra and the SNP’s Derek Mackay and Humza Yousaf but beyond that too few to mention.
Sixteen years of devolution shows the limits of the professional political classes – of how they see the world, do politics and the vision or not they have of the future. This touches on the wider state of politics and representative democracy which have been hollowed out by power becoming increasingly globalised and the rise of corporate elite interests.
The notion of politicians as legislators and interpreters has to be rethought. Both dimensions of this can be done better. Firstly, close to home we have witnessed the explosion of citizen activism in the independence referendum. That has shown a different take on being a politician which may have an impact on the result and who is elected in the coming Westminster contest. The Natalie Bennett disastrous interview this week showed that voters don’t want amateurs.
Secondly, in the last few decades there has been an increased use of referendums in the UK as popular opinion is more regularly directly consulted particularly on constitutional issues.
With representative democracy weakened, new forms of direct and deliberative democracy can put decision making in the hands of people not politicians. This can range from mini-referendums and publics to citizens’ juries and assemblies. This is hardly an agenda Westminster is going to enthusiastically embrace, but what is to stop Scotland?
After all direct democracy would be a genuine expression of self-government. Power to the people not politicians. Over to you Nicola Sturgeon and Jim Murphy.