Time for a new Chartism
18 May 2009
Rick Muir calls for a mordern Charter, the demands of which should include reform to an outdated electoral system that excludes the diversity of voices in our society from parliament.
The kaleidoscope of British politics has been profoundly shaken by the events of the last week. The significance of ‘expenses-gate’ lies not in the seriousness of the individual claims, but rather in the fact that almost the whole political class has been implicated. The sight of Ming Campbell, a hitherto widely respected Lib Dem elder statesman, being heckled and jeered on Question Time, was to long-standing observers of British politics profoundly shocking. Over the weekend Tam Dalyell and Gerald Kaufman, also widely respected political veterans, had to go in front of the media to justify claims for £18,000 bookcases and antique rugs.
People are making comparisons with the Italian ‘clean hands’ scandal of the mid 1990s, which wiped out the entire party system. There are parallels with the collapse of the Venezuelan party system just over a decade ago, in which long standing party loyalties, already under strain, suddenly snapped following an economic crash and corruption scandals that implicated the whole political class from left to right. The outcomes of both of those episodes are salutary: the emergence and later political dominance of charismatic populist movements headed by Silvio Berlusconi and Hugo Chavez.
So where might the pieces settle following this unprecedented parliamentary scandal? Could the party system, one of the fixed comfortable constants of British politics, actually collapse? Although public anger is running at unprecedented levels and directed at the political class as a whole, I doubt it. It looks more likely that as the incumbent party Labour will suffer the highest political penalty and David Cameron’s deft public handling of the affair will carry him into office in 2010 with a substantial majority.
The parties can survive this, but only if they deselect those MPs who have abused the system and go to the electorate with a new generation of candidates untainted by the affairs of this last week. Incumbency is now a serious disadvantage and we can expect to see offending MPs in what were regarded as safe seats facing Martin Bell style challenges at the next election.
This is however a serious constitutional crisis and the rules of the game will have to change. And I am not just referring to parliamentary expenses: although that is the direct cause of public anger, the level of sheer rage (calls for MPs to be shot or put in prison, MPs having bricks thrown through their office windows) shows that this anger and mistrust has been festering away for some time. This scandal has revealed that the gap that has gradually being opening up between the public and the political system is now a chasm. It cannot be bridged through a ‘business as usual’ response.
We need a radical restructuring of our political system. Constitutional reformers have long bemoaned a lack of public interest in issues like PR and parliamentary reform. This has now changed. Although there is not yet a direct call for electoral reform there is an implicit demand for a political system that is more accountable to the public and less open to abuse.
But for a process of reform to have legitimacy it needs to come not from Westminster but from civil society – we need a modern Chartism. This is the moment that Charter 88 was made for, twenty years later – a coalition of citizens needs to be assembled around a programme of change. This should include grassroots members of the main parties who are as appalled by this as everyone else. The demands of this movement should include reform to an outdated electoral system that excludes the diversity of voices in our society from parliament. It should also include changes to the way political parties are funded and a localisation of power so that decision-making is made much more closely to the people affected. There should be new channels of direct participation, such as the ability to trigger referenda on issues of major public concern.
But political demand No1 of the new Chartists should be for a Citizens Assembly to re-write the rules of the political game. A Citizens’ Assembly is a body of ordinary citizens selected by lot, like a jury, which is brought together to consider major political issues. These have worked well in Canada as a way of breaking the log jam on electoral reform – whereas the parties gave a vested interest in blocking change, an independent body of citizens can take a more disinterested view. In our case the assembly should sit for a year to eighteen months and recommend a raft of reforms that could be to a free vote in parliament and for some important questions to a referendum of the public as a whole.
If we are to avoid this crisis leading to a politics of ugly populism we need to channel public outrage into a constructive movement for political reform.
Rick Muir is a Senior Research Fellow at ippr.