MPs just admitted they’re doing it wrong
MPs trying to answer the question 'why does no-one like us?' have come up with a package of revolutionary ideas which, if implemented, would transform our democracy.
The political and constitutional reform committee's shopping list of potential reforms to try and fix the deepening problem of voter disengagement is full of radical solutions.
Making voting compulsory, establishing a system of online voting and 'enforcing' the legal requirement for voter registration are all ambitious but deeply controversial ideas featuring in its report out today.
But MPs go further. They want to get the media to stop focusing on the negatives which drive public opinion remorselessly towards cynicism. They want the political parties to stop centralising their power. They want the government to follow suit by devolving responsibility to local areas.
It is what committee chair Graham Allen has declared "the biggest voting reform package in a century". Campaign groups like Unlock Democracy have declared it "invaluable". If nothing else, it should help start a debate.
But it is in acknowledging the problem that this group of MPs from across Westminster's three main parties are actually at their most striking.
It's hard, when reading their report closely, to avoid a sense of deep discomfort at what the future holds. Something has gone very wrong in our democracy, they warn. "We need to move swiftly to pre-empt a crisis," MPs say.
Parliament's relative weakness seems to be at the heart of the problem:
"There are broad negative stereotypes about parliament and government—two separate institutions—which go beyond healthy and necessary scepticism and into a cynicism which if unaddressed could undermine the very basis of our representative democracy."
Allen, his colleagues in parliament say, is speaking out about these issues because he has been around for a long time and after many years in parliament has become deeply frustrated with the status quo.
"Our democracy is facing a crisis if we do not take urgent action to make elections more accessible to the public and convince them that it is worth voting," he warns. By securing cross-party agreement for it, Allen has somehow persuaded MPs to admit that the current way in which we 'do' politics is all wrong.
He feels he has the answers. They are undoubtedly radical and will probably not happen in any of our lifetimes. But they are at least worth a hearing.
Graham Allen, chair of the political and constitutional reform select committee
Much of the debate about voter registration, while important, occasionally verges into the technical. At the other extreme, encouraging positive feelings about democracy by holding a 'festival of voting' around polling day is worthy but unlikely to make a big difference. In the middle, some really important points are being made.
First is an acceptance of the rotten nature of the political parties – an important concession given it is MPs of all parties who are signing their names to this claim.
The problem here is that thriving political parties at the local level are vital for our democracy. But they're shrinking: the demands of party discipline in a 24/7 media age where messaging has to be rigidly controlled has prompted a centralisation of political party activity that results in less effective engagement with the public, MPs say. Think of then-party chairman Eric Pickles' quiet assertions of authority about the Tories' A-list in the buildup to 2010, or Labour's byzantine committee structures.
"This 'hollowing-out must have a clear adverse impact on how people engage with elections, as well as politics more broadly," today's report states. "Political parties have become leader-centric." The increased importance of the televised debates will only reinforce that.
Actually, the role of the media goes much further. No political party is immune from the suspicion that the bulk of the media has got it in for them. The rules of the game state that individual politicians are forbidden from complaining on the record; hence when Ed Miliband was asked whether he was being treated unfairly by the press he laughed it off and insisted: "I'm not in the whingeing business."
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This refusal to even address the issue presents a big problem for politicians and the media – but now MPs have spoken out about it. What's really big of them, though, is that they accept that politicians could do something about the constant drive towards negativity:
"It is our view that politicians and media outlets could both do more to move the media focus away from denigration and trivialisation and more towards analysis and reporting, with the hope of better engaging the public with issues that concern them to make politics and elections more relevant. This is a sensitive area with strong default positions on all sides but, again, the future of democracy in the UK demands that business as usual is not an option."
What MPs are proposing is a summit of 'willing participants' in the new year which would start a discussion on whether, and how, media and politics can change the way they operate. It would have to take place off-the-record in order to create a 'safe space'; otherwise politicians will just go into their shells like Miliband did.
It sounds like a mission impossible – but there are several ideas that instantly spring to mind. Britain's political culture follows thought-patterns and processes which, by default, are damaging. It will take a bit of mental effort to get out of them, but real change is not impossible.
This exciting possibility is overshadowed by the report's most controversial proposal, however – its call for the question of compulsory voting to be opened up. MPs couldn't actually agree on whether forcing people to vote is a good idea or not, but they want Westminster to look at examples from abroad in order to realise it would fix the turnout problem overnight.
It is a flawed idea which, as Alexandra Runswick of Unlock Democracy puts it, only "masks the problems of voter disillusionment". She adds: "Papering over the cracks is not enough; we need fundamental reform."
This report offers that reform. It is a must-read. It starts off on the premise that we're heading towards a crisis and uses that to justify radical changes to our political culture. If we don't at least have the debates it is looking to start about the way decisions are made in this country that affect all our lives, lazy politicians will only have themselves to blame when that 'crisis' comes.
It may have already arrived.