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How can we bring about real change?


10:41 am - July 11th 2009

by Anthony Barnett    


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There will, finally, be a general election within a year. It could well prove to be yet again a fight between the two main parties for control over the dictatorial authority of the British state, now as ‘modernised’ by New Labour, with total victory once more provided by a minority of the vote.

While if the electorate feels there is no realistic offer of a choice to open up the system, continuing negative feedback of massive abstention will confirm popular revulsion yet make the problem worse.

Many are working on how to prevent such an outcome, including a new network around Real Change of which I am member. I am writing this post to share the challenge of what approach to take to best unlock this energy – and light the positive fuse of popular discontent in a way that can be effective.

The question is how. People are asking, ‘what can I do?’ Everyone wants something that could work and not another protest. We don’t need wake up calls any more! We need a way of delivering change. Here is an overview of the suggestions already being put forward.

  1. Take a single issue like electoral reform and demand a referendum on it at the same time as the election, as the key issue that will open up change. This is the approach of Vote for Change. The attraction is simplicity and audacity. If such a referendum is held, won and implemented then at a stroke the old party system is broken and voters will be counted fairly – what could be more important for democracy? The drawbacks with such a call is that it is aimed at a Labour government which seems to lack the credibility to pass the legislation. Also, an incoming Conservative government may not feel bound by the outcome of the referendum and is likely to be committed to David Cameron’s ideas of non-proportional changes to the electoral system. If a referendum succeeds and PR is introduced it will create a more pluralist and representative Commons, but on its own will it be enough and can it attract enough public support?
  2. Generate a set of basic pledges for change that are then taken to all candidates to create a reforming parliament.
    The basic thinking here is that we know the changes we want, the main issue is how to make them happen. Such pledges will draw in a wide alliance, as they could include a referendum on Europe, local government that has financial power, open primaries and more direct participation. The candidates then commit and voters will know who to choose. A drawback is that to be short and appealing the pledges can mean different things to different politicians. It’s not clear how delivery is ensured even if candidates are elected. How will all the commitments translate into the necessary parliament majorities given how the system ‘works’?
  3. Meet, Deliberate, have a convention, Decide, Influence, Elect and hold to account starting with 1,000 meetings around the UK in pubs or living rooms or as part of discussions in existing networks. This is the original Real Change proposal. It’s very ambitious. Its advantage is the hope of considerable popular deliberation, wide public argument, a growing movement and the intellectual excitement of building a novel ‘open politics network’. Its drawbacks are how to deliver the influence it seeks. The pledge policy suffers from the same drawbacks as No 2. In this case it risks being seen as prejudging the outcome of what is declared to be an open, deliberative process.
  4. Get Parliament to pass an Act empowering a citizens deliberative convention to decide on a set of major reforms. A Bill exists to do this created by Unlock Democracy with support at the moment of just over 100 MPs, half a dozen of them Tories. Its strength is that parliament is too tribal and self-interested to change the system and this takes reform out of its hands, into those of regular people. It is also simple. But without popular support from outside parliament any such process will be still-born. And how can public support be inspired for the creation of something which then takes all the interesting decisions? Also, lobbying for such a proposal reproduces dependency on MPs.
  5. Launch a campaign to “Take back our parliament” This would focus on how it represents us (proportionality, open primaries), its honesty (transparency), defending our liberties (independence), its funding (no corruption). All the big themes thread through this approach including the role of Europe and the need for real local government so that MPs have the time to scrutinise legislation rather than be welfare officers for their constituents. Its advantage is a simple ‘cry’ and an appeal to our traditional form of democracy. A disadvantage is that such a call is unlikely to appeal to those, many of whom are under 30, who are engaged by issues of our democracy, rights and liberty but find parliament as an institution remote and uninteresting.
  6. Bring about a network of independent candidates committed to implementing a reform agenda. If this was combined with a strong Liberal Democrat presence it could produce a hung parliament and forge a reforming administration. But if the independent candidates are not a new political party they will need to be locally based. How can this be organised? The financial costs are also considerable. The odd thing here is why the Lib Dems are seen so widely as part of the system rather than a force for fundamental change.
  7. Organise an on-line force for change on the lines of MoveOn in the US. This is the approach adopted by 38 degrees who launched conveniently into the expenses scandal and found themselves somewhat to their surprise calling for changes in the way we are governed as their first campaign. The advantages of this modern and fast approach is that it can grow very fast. A disadvantage is the risk of being seen as chasing urgent issues and being very centralised. We know it can work when those involved by it represent something inside a large party. But can it work to change a very large country?

The prospect of an imminent election next year definitely makes things urgent. What is needed now is to build a demand for change in a way that is inventive captures the imagination of wide sections of the public, encourages open self-organising protest, and brings in the very large civil society associations and faith groups whose members are appalled at what is going on.

At the height of the expenses scandal the Independent carried a spread in which the three main party leaders competed with each other to say they were the ones who would lead a huge democratic change in the system.

Gordon Brown said he was a longtime supporter of Charter 88 and wants a written constitution. David Cameron pledged to give “power to the powerless”. Nick Clegg, who has always called for the system to be replaced but backed the view that it was not a priority for voters, suddenly declared that everything had to be done in 100 days.

Each in their way was aware that what was once a mighty Establishment rooted in British institutions and supported by mass parties, had shrivelled into a narrow political class. You could smell their fear of losing their claim to leadership as the populace howled with derision. Yet they also played for time: we are on your side they said, like all good therapists. Now go back to your “real lives”.

The starting point, we suggest, is as simple and as modest as talking to someone else about what needs to happen in a way that adds up across the country and is connected to profound and well-thought out arguments.

It is up to us to start the democratic process, both in terms of leadership and public participation, that parliament has failed to deliver. How can this best be done? We must make a beginning and find out fast. If you believe you have a stake in this, please join Real Change.

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About the author
Anthony Barnett is a regular contributor, and editor of the blog Our Kingdom. Also a founder member of OpenDemocracy and Charter 88. He co-organised the Convention on Modern Liberty.
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Reader comments


Realistically, nothing will change without BOTH the main parties agreeing – especially the incoming Tories.

Labour did have the legitimacy (and the manifesto promise) to bring in AV+, but it is far too late now.

A referendum (binding) would present the incoming Tories with a massive headache (if it was won). But can a referendum be won when it is pushed by such an unpopular government?

A citizen’s convention would be great – but no way the political classes would relinquish power unless there were millions on the street campaiging for it, which is highly unlikely to happen with such an unemotive subject and virtually no publicity without the Tory press backing it – which hell would have to freeze over to get.

I am beginning the think that nothing is going to happen for another generation.

The Tories are committed to fiddling the boundaries of the present system (enlarging boundaries and changing the boundary commission remit so administrative and geographical considerations can be ignored) so they can win even bigger majorities on a diminishing vote – this could keep them in power for three or more terms on as little as 30% of the vote.

They are going to lift the impartiality requirements on the broadcast media – so Daily Mail TV and a British Fox news will dominate, just like they dominate the printed press – making public knowledge on this subject even more confused.

There are even hints that the Tories will reverse PR for London and the Euro elections, and maybe even the devolved Wales and Scotland, though they would have a real battle on their hands there.

Labour ignored the English regions when it devolved Scotland, Wales and London – so people are rightly angry about the West-Lothian question. What we need is powerful English regions elected by PR or even an English parliament elected by PR. Instead Labour’s failure has enabled the Tories to propose excluding Scottish MPs from debates about England and Wales, which will strengthen their grip on power with a minority of the vote.

It all looks very grim, progress is going to be very slow. I think we just have to wait until BOTH the main parties cannot command 50% of the vote (like happened in the Euros under PR) – their lack of legitimacy will then be overwhelmingly obvious. As perpetual hung parliaments take hold – as has happened in Canada who have the same “Westminster’ system of first-past-the-post as us.

The answer is to persuade the 40% of the electorate who have currently ‘given up’ not to sit on their hands and abstain from voting – but to vote for the minor parties – if we can persuade enough to do this, then PR and real change will inevitably follow.

Neil sums up the general grimness very well. The opportunities are slipping away, the closer we get to a Tory victory. In that light, the most important part of this plan is the pledging bit.

Related question: the govt has now shelved portions of what we were all objecting to at the Convention of Modern Liberty. To what extent do we think that event, as representative of a wider tide of opinion, had an impact on their decisions?

I’m just trying to see if there’s any way of gauging how successful these things actually are, and which bits of them work if so. The connect between having 1000 meetings in pubs and successfully getting parliament to pass a new law is obviously not very immediate. Otherwise I would be one of the great legislators of the age 😉

I think it is unfortunate that there is a relative lack of co-ordination and support between the left and right on this issue. Douglas Carswell has been pushing for reform on the open primaries front for sometime now and there has been some tentative success in the Tory party: http://www.talkcarswell.com/show.aspx?id=854

“Gordon Brown said he was a longtime supporter of Charter 88 and wants a written constitution.”

The last thing I want to see is the baleful son of the manse having anything to do with a written constitution. If we are to have a single constitutional document then I want to see one that protects the people from the government, not the other way round.

“A referendum (binding) would present the incoming Tories with a massive headache (if it was won). But can a referendum be won when it is pushed by such an unpopular government?”

I very much doubt that a referendum could be won and in any case there is no mechanism to make a referendum binding, (beyond political embarrassment).

“It all looks very grim, progress is going to be very slow.”

This is not necessarily a bad thing. If we rush into a change of this import then there will not only be a lack of cross party support but also insufficient consideration of which option to go for, (I think they all have good and bad points, there is no proposed solution without potential down sides as well as benenfits).

BTW Neil, your site cannot accept comments at the moment. When trying to leave one all I can see is the top half of the captcha with the lower half and the box to type it in being hidden.

5. paul barker

can i add a few more possible routes, first Peter Hains suggestion of AV for 2010. he argues that this is such a minor change as not to need a referendum. the effect is unpredictable but would probably increase the number of Lib-dem seats at the expence of Labour & Tories.
second, why assume that the 2 party system is so secure ? the gap between Labour & Lib-dems has been steady around 5%, it would only need 1 in 20 voters to move to the LDs to give an equal struggle for second place. many Tory voters are really anti-Labour % vice versa; change the question to Tory vs LD & we could see big movements of voters. a hung Parliament is perfectly possible.

@1 Neil Harding: Realistically, nothing will change without BOTH the main parties agreeing – especially the incoming Tories.

It’s (to say the least) unlikely that the Tories will agree to PR, when the alternative is David Cameron getting dictatorial powers for 10-15 years. And all because Labour were too stupid, incompetent and dishonest to implement their manifesto commitment of a referendum on AV+.

If we want real electoral reform, we need to prevent a Tory majority at the next election. We also need to realise that Labour are no friends of PR, or of reform in general. Indeed the two big parties, or the Labservatives as I call them, are likely to strongly resist change to what has hitherto been their cosy little duopoly.

So how do we get PR? This is something I’ve given deep consideration to, and I’ve written two essays about it:

FPTP is dead which notes the share of the vote going to the Labservatives is diminishing over time, and small parties are getting more important. Therefore FPTP makes increasingly less sense for Westminster elections and is likely to go eventually.

How to get PR? points out that in the Euro election, 56% of voters voted for someone other than the Labservatives. Indeed 40% voted for parties not represented in the Commons. If all these people could get together on a reform slate, and stand one joint candidate, they’d win an overall majority easily and break the big parties’ grip on power.

Who would be in this coalition? I envisage the Lib Dems, Greens, and UKIP forming the bulk of it. Other parties such as the SNP, PC, English Democrats, Libertarians, Pirate Party, etc might join. The coalition would be ideologically diverse, and would agree to (1) set up PR, (2) set up a citizens convention to look into other constitutional changes, and (3) hold another general election (under PR, obviously).

This coalition would be somewhat unwieldy, and probably wouldn’t get 56% of the vote, but I expect they’d get around 40% which would probably be more than anyone else would get — bear in mind that a huge number of voters view the entire political establishment with comtempt and would flock to the coalition. They’d also either have an overall majority in parliament or enough seats to hold the balance of power.

@4: If we are to have a single constitutional document then I want to see one that protects the people from the government, not the other way round.

Indeed. Which is why any such document should be largely written by a constitutional convention, and not by the government of the day.

@1 Neil Harding: I am beginning the think that nothing is going to happen for another generation.

You may well be right. If politics continues “as usual”, Labour will be unelectable for a generation and we’ll have 20 years of Thatcherism mark II.

The Tories are committed to fiddling the boundaries of the present system (enlarging boundaries and changing the boundary commission remit so administrative and geographical considerations can be ignored) so they can win even bigger majorities on a diminishing vote – this could keep them in power for three or more terms on as little as 30% of the vote.

Quite likely.

They are going to lift the impartiality requirements on the broadcast media – so Daily Mail TV and a British Fox news will dominate, just like they dominate the printed press – making public knowledge on this subject even more confused.

This is also likely, although by 2014 (date of general election after next), the Internet will dominate for news ahead of TV or newpapers.

There are even hints that the Tories will reverse PR for London and the Euro elections, and maybe even the devolved Wales and Scotland, though they would have a real battle on their hands there.

They can’t for the Euro elections, PR is a treaty requirement. As you say, if they tried it for Scotland, it would create an enormous stink — possibly involving Scotland leaving the UK (I wouldn’t put it past Cameron and the SNP engineering an artificial dispute between Scotland and the UK to get Scotland to leave).

Not only do we need to look at the method of government, we need to look at the people who become MPs and politicians. The range of experience is very narrow . If we change the system and still have middle to upper middle class university educated humanities types who have have only worked as researchers for unions, civil servants , think tanks or done a couple of years in the City , then we will still have a problem. We have hardly any craftsmen, foremen, industrialists, nurses, doctors, military personnel with combat experience, scientists, engineers, those with international business experience ( especially Middle East,Brazil, Russia, Europe, China, India, Japan, Africa and Far East), teachers from inner city schools, owners of small businesses, then little will change.
MPs must not be dependent on their parties for their incomes; they must have careers outside politics. MPs need F. Y money so they can stand up to whips and party leaders.

Hi Anthony,

Interesting post.

I quite like the idea of the 1000 meetings, but I suspect and fear that only a fairly narrow selection of people will participate – which in turn will prevent the growth of a coalition and set of demands which could gain majority support. The timetable (1,000 meetings to feed into a conference in the Autumn) also looks completely unrealistic, particularly if you want to reach about beyond the ‘usual suspects’. For example, will there be specific efforts to enable participation by those likely to be excluded by the requirement to attend a meeting to have a say?

I also don’t agree with some of the decisions which have already been made about the priorities for this campaign. For example, you refer to the need for reforms so that “MPs have the time to scrutinise legislation rather than be welfare officers for their constituents”. But the “welfare officer” part of the job of MP is one which many people (particularly those on lower incomes) value and appreciate, much more so than their role as a scrutineer of legislation.

There are lots of people who are quite happy to denounce politicians in general as scoundrels, but praise their own MP because when they needed help on some matter, they got a prompt and courteous reply, and their representative did their best to help.

@1 Neil Harding, @6 cabalamat

I agree that the prospects feel very bleak, I am not convinced that any of Anthony Barnett’s options can gain any traction. I have no doubt that the settled will of the British public is that it is time to kick Labour out and the English will put Cameron in on something over 40% of the vote, like turkeys voting for Christmas or rabbits frozen in the headlights of the juggernaut that will flatten them. Electoral reform is dead in the water, sadly.

I think activists can work to get Greens and Respect elected in a handful of FPTP seats and we must all hope for an embarrassingly massive Tory landslide (300 seats or so) on <50% of the vote that will make everyone see what an absurd situation we are in, make Cameron’s parliamentary party more unruly and nekedly nasty and – crucially – smash the Labour Party so hard that both its right and its left give up all hope of ever winning a FPTP election again, and destroy the hubris that decrees that they never collaborate with other progressive/left forces.

@donpaskini: You’re right that the 1000 meetings would be tough to organise and make inclusive were those meetings to be organised by a central body. It’s the ‘existing networks’ that Anthony mentions that will be key to that strategy, and persuading groups to get their members to give up a bit of time for discussion of the important political issues that more people than ever are angry enough about to discuss. Politics societies, faith groups, football federations, book clubs, or whatever, the key for 1000 meetings is to utilise already existing associations of people (of not just the ‘usual suspects’ you mention, but also, vitally important, outside them) and then give people the opportunity to make their voice heard, bring their voices together, and build momentum as the meetings take place.


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