If you doubt that what we call representative democracy has run its course, consider the way politics and economics has been playing out recently. Just when the pressures, caused by world population, climate change, and power block competition, are getting to a critical point the political processes and the ideas that support them, which we have grown up with, are failing. They have failed to deliver prosperity for everyone, failed to secure commitment and engagement and failed to deliver greater contentment or humanity. In the midst of some awe inspiring progress (and there is a lot of good news out there) we are squabbling over trivialities. What is going on?
A perfect storm
Political crises are a recurrent part of history, what makes this period any different, don't we just have to live through it?
There are big reasons why we need to change that are different to any we have faced in the past - much of it is a product of our success. We are so successful we now dominate the world, the consequence is that population pressures, manifesting as water shortages and involuntary migration, loss of bio-diversity and environmental degradation, extreme weather, and increasing power block competition are already impacting and will become more severe. Change is desperately needed if we are to be in a fit state to tackle these issues. Think of evolution and human history like growing up, our childhood lasted till the industrial revolution, right now we are behaving like out of control adolescents. It is as though we are 16 and having the wildest party, but there will be hell to pay if we don't clear up the mess. On this crowded and finite planet it’s imperative we actually grow up and start behaving. But time is pressing, mother Gaia is about to ring the doorbell. She's not going to tell us off and admonish us about leaving a decent place to future generations - she will wreak havoc.
...And the inability to deal with them
It is a commonplace that our politics suffers from cynicism and disengagement. Centrist politicians (who thought they were the technical managers of a settled system) now seem at a loss. Commentators on all side lament the growth of populist nationalism and point to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as symptoms of this.
There is certainly something unsatisfactory with politics
- An ideological clique has taken over one of our mainstream parties and is intent on carrying through a major change with much less than 50% support in the population. I refer, not to the left in the Labour Party but to the European Reform Group within the Conservative Party. They act and behave as a party within a party, just today Ian Duncan Smith was advocating that people from this group be included in decision making on Brexit (World at One, 11thMarch 2019) this was not to be part of a wider consultation, simply the demand of the ERG. This was politely engaged with by the presenter as if it was nothing out of the ordinary; just imagine if a member of the Tribune Group had tried to challenge Tony Blair in this way, the fact that you can’t illustrates just how broken the Conservative Party is.
- On the left the position is just as bleak. Many on the left naïvely or cynically think that they can support the wave not the man, the man being Jeremy Corbyn who by implication may not be the perfect leader. By wave, they mean the wave of support that has increased labour membership to over 500,000, which is quite remarkable. They see this as an indicator of success, the best chance in years for a left of centre Labour Government. It may be seductive, but it ignores hard realities. Labour is struggling in the polls. After 30 years of Thatcherism there is little public understanding or support for a left of centre project. Indeed such an alternative has hardly been articulated, and in policy terms Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Clement Atlee would be as, if not more, radical than Labours 2016 manifesto.
Both major parties lack ambition and vision, and vested interests also pervert democracy; there is a revolving door between government and the big consultancies, there are myriads of political appointments, amounting to a full blown patronage system in the hinterland of unaccountable and under-scrutinised outsourced, and semi-privatised agencies. Party whips stifle independent thinking, party interests (to seek advantage and gain power) work against collaboration. Solutions are always done to people not with them and regardless of whether they actually work.
- Wholesale slum clearance (for which there was a case) also destroyed communities in the 60's and 70’s and still, with the exception of a few experiments, the last people to be involved in the design of houses and housing developments are those who are going to live in, and use them. Houses are getting smaller and smaller. It is no coincidence that one of the first things Margaret Thatcher did was abolish the Parker-Morris standard.
- Universal Credit has been designed by well off people with monthly pay but doesn’t work for people who are effectively lump-labour on who it is forced.
- The enthusiasm with which Public-Private Initiatives were used to fund projects, just to keep them off the balance sheet belies their impact; it would have been cheaper to the public purse to print the money and/or issue bonds; as it is the debt from all the new schools and hospitals is still rising.
- Why do we need competition inside the health service? If there was simply a need for better stock control and efficiency might not a lean system, adapted to the special characteristics of health suffice? It would need to be adapted because in a health system there are some things you just cannot run out of. (Note: Lean). The introduction of internal competition is a distraction from the systems thinking, integration, accumulation of experience and planning that is needed for any lean organisation, and especially one as large, complex and important to us all, as the NHS.
- Comprehensive education has been replaced by unaccountable academy chains run along business lines with eye watering salaries for heads, with a result we should not be surprised by, increasing levels of exclusion.
- The political love affair with the private sector now extends to hiring emergency transport from companies with no ships (Note: No ships)
If we turn to the economy things are just as bad, we still, even after the 2008 crash, seem to be in thrall to the idea of the invisible hand and somehow expect good to come from the sum of individual greed and competition.
- The tech companies that have automated the mob and facilitated dubious election campaigning get away with a free speech fig leaf, as if they were not in fact publishing.
- Having reformed the Trade Unions, instead of returning some power to them, so that they can act as a counterweight to the power of business, we now subsidise poor wages. How can it make sense for people to be in-work and on benefits? If the business case depends on subsidised labour what sort of business case is it? If the block vote was unacceptable and had to be fixed how come fund managers don't have to consult their members, how come share ownership conveys no ownership responsibilities?
- We live in a world of euphemisms: those on zero hours are not lump-labour but workers in a gig economy, the activist investor is not a responsible citizen trying to make a multinational change its' polluting practices, it turns out to be nothing less than a euphemism for those investment funds whose purpose is to aggressively intervene in company management (often from minority shareholder positions) to make sure they maximise returns to shareholders (Note: Activist Investors). Look where the relentless paying high dividends instead of investing got General Motors.
- People are routinely duped. It is normal to be expected to up-sell despite the huge scandal of payment protection insurance.
- The entire economic system makes us all culpable; our councils outsource services to profit oriented companies that depress our service workers wages, we buy cheap stuff made by exploited people in far-away places, we shop on all days of the week and at all hours, to the detriment of the family life of any unfortunate enough to have several members in retail employment, we expect instant delivery regardless of how the people who do the deliveries are treated, and then we use things once, chuck things out and buy even more.
Are there any remedies?
It was Churchill who said we had the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried. But historically, once monarchy and despotism were rejected we have really only tried two approaches to change society - revolution and democracy.
- In a revolution we break everything, which might be exciting and exhilarating (if you are on the side of change). But there is the ever present danger of the revolution being hijacked by a strong person or ruthless group. Overthrow is seductive, it is the easy bit. The idea of starting over soon leads to Year 0. Being constructive is what is difficult, to build something that demands cooperation is harder then just shooting your opponents. But violence begets violence and never works in the long term.
- The idea of transforming society by competing for control over the state with elections and parties also fails. Its failures are more subtle for they hold up a promise of better tomorrow and put a veil of legitimacy over some very suspect behaviours, it also hides much of the wielding of raw power from view.
The representative democracy we have now was built slowly. In its modern phase, it started with the Great Reform Act of 1832 and only ended with the full emancipation of women in 1928. It is easy to see why we are attached to it.
With the exception of devolution and a botched House of Lords reform, when it comes to the constant improvement of the political system, we seem to have ground to a halt. The power of the Prime Minister has been increasing for years. Parliament is dominated by the executive; its ability to hold the executive to account is flawed, I think fatally, by the presence of ministers, junior ministers, and parliamentary private secretaries, by the promises of office and the action of the whips. We have not stopped, we have actually gone backwards when it comes to local government and scrutiny of the executive; local government powers have been curtailed, much of government is run by a patronage system of agencies, we are highly centralised.
By its nature politics attracts power seekers - no doubting that many have good intentions (I'm sure I did when I stood for parliament) but all systems mould their members. In the UK this is to its arcane, obscure procedures and its competitive practices. The danger of plutocratic interference is ever present. Top down, often high-handed action combined with the fact that, a parliamentary majority does not need majority support in the electorate, means that legitimacy is undermined, the opponents are not won over they just bide their time. The results always disappoint, and outcomes are never settled.
No wonder there is widespread anger, distrust and disengagement with politics. The fabric of civil society and our ability to tackle problems, imagine better society and act accordingly is damaged – we had a generation of “there is no alternative”. Even when our politicians did sensible deals in Europe, they would feel the need to decry the EU at home. Blaming the Brussels bureaucracy ignores both the political nature of commissioner appointments and the practical working of the council of ministers, which is precisely where shared sovereignty is worked out. We are, arguably as a result of this double standard, now in a ground-hog day. The minutiae of political manoeuvring and on-off trade talks fills the addenda for the foreseeable future, just when we need to be facing into the massive challenges the next 100 years will bring.
So, a new politics would be a good idea, wouldn't it?