Richard North, 29/07/2021  

For the first time in a while, the Northern Ireland Protocol does not dominate the Brexit-related news and, as we approach the August torpor, nothing much can be expected from Brussels. Unless there are some remarkable (and unexpected) developments, the black hole of European politics is about to begin.

Much the same can be said of the UK scene, where one of the top stories in the Telegraph is Nicole Kidman's new hair style – unsurprising in the context of the annual report from Ofcom on news consumption, which has the most popular topics for teenagers being "music and celebrity news".

As an aside, Ofcom says that 49 percent of its sample say they use social media to get news, but the likes of Twitter and Facebook perform least well among TV, newspapers, magazines and radio for trustworthiness, impartiality or accuracy.

Only 33 percent say news found on social media is trustworthy compared with 67 percent for newspapers and 68 per cent for TV – although that has to be taken in the context of less than half the population using newspapers (digital and print) as their source of news, while less than a third of adults use print newspapers (32 percent).

At least there is some hope, though when Facebook turns out to be the least trusted of social media platforms for news, with just 27 percent of people saying it is trustworthy, and only 28 per cent saying it is accurate. As for the humble blog, so far has the genre faded from public consciousness that it doesn't rate a mention, being lumped under "other websites".

What little political comment there is currently in the online media is desultory stuff, but it is worth looking in to Rafael Behr's column, if only because he is saying something akin to what we have been writing on this blog for years.

"The 'Boris effect'", runs the headline to Behr's piece "is a symptom of Britain's decaying political system", with the sub-heading telling us: "The prime minister’s unlikely alliance of voters can hold only because nothing has broken the country’s two-party mould".

Although, he notes, in recent years, "none of the above" have soared in opinion polls, when it came to the 2017 and 2019 general elections, he writes, "first past the post and the question of who should be prime minister had their usual effect. When only two parties can credibly claim to be running candidates for No 10, votes get funnelled back down the old red and blue channels".

"In the absence of electoral reform", Behr then writes, "there is no obvious reason why the pattern will change", complaining that "it is unhealthy and unstable for the country’s two big parties to be sustained only by polarising mutual animosity and a system that suffocates political startups".

That is how, he says, "we now have a Labour party where admirers of Corbyn in exile cohabit with supporters of the successor who banished him. That is how we have a Conservative prime minister whose superpower is persuading people to overlook the fact that he is a Tory".

Few might disagree with Behr's observation that, "it suits Labour and the Tories to tell people that each is the only alternative to the other", and that it also suits them "to pretend that votes cast under those conditions indicate popular support".

But, as he rightly observes, "it insults the intelligence of everyone who held their noses in 2019 and marked the ballot paper with fists clenched in frustration at the choice on offer".

The two big political brands, he concludes, "have primacy in a failed marketplace", whence he adds: "It is not easy to envisage what the force will be that disrupts their arrangement. But that is the nature of dramatic change. It is unimaginable right up until it happens, at which point everyone agrees that it was inevitable".

An inference one could take from Behr's writing is that he favours some form of proportional representation, even if he doesn't state this explicitly. It is certainly a common enough nostrum, favoured by many pundits as an answer to our political woes.

The great problem, though, is that we still end up being notionally represented by politicians who, in the nature of the system, end up representing themselves and the political establishment, rather than the people who elected them.

A more important change, in my view, is to introduce that which is lacking into the political process – the proper separation of powers, as between the executive and the legislature. To that effect, I would see an elected prime minister, who would not be an MP and who would not sit in the House of Commons – and nor would ministers.

As for parliament, in the lower house, I would abolish political parties, and redesign the Commons chamber so that there was no divide between government and opposition benches. The split should not be within the house, but between the legislature and the executive. The former should scrutinise the latter rather than act as a terrifyingly shallow gene pool to provide ministerial fodder for the government.

As for elections to the house, I take the view that the utility of the electoral process is grossly over-rated as most people vote for the party rather than the individual. Then, with safe seats forming the majority, the general elections tends to turn on which party can best manipulate the small number of "swing voters" in marginal seats.

Where, however, the blood-lust and party loyalties can be sated by electing a prime minister, I see no absolute need to elect MPs. One alternative would be to go for a form of qualified sortition, allowing for the entry to the pool of candidates to be voluntary, dependent on satisfactorily passing an examination and meeting other criteria.

In an optimal system, each successful candidate would serve one term only but, for the "upper house", a proportion of the lower house could be elected by their peers to serve a second term in the revising chamber.

It follows from this that representative democracy has had its day, and we need to be looking at direct democracy, which we examined in the form of The Harrogate Agenda.

It has to be stressed, though, that direct democracy should only be countenanced in the context of a formal, written constitution, guarded by a constitutional court and protected from interference. After all, the purpose of a constitution is to set constraints on power, and to protect the rights of minorities. This is no less important when people have the ultimate power.

However, before any serious change can be mooted, there needs to be a serious debate in this country on how we organise our politics. Away from the political class, few will disagree with Rafael Behr's underlying premise that the political system is broken.

He is also right to hint that, at some time a "force" will emerge that disrupts the two-party arrangement. He warns that it is "unimaginable" right up until it happens, but fails to say that the unimaginable could also be messy and very violent.

Thus, be either have to imagine what change would bring about better governance, or let the unimaginable take its course, the likes of which are unlikely to be an improvement on the current mess. Basically, either we talk now or perish later. That is the choice.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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