Monday, May 25, 2009

The time's right for ethical politics

People forget politicians were not well respected before the expenses scandal. Much of the present rage isn't simply over a few liberties between friends but about a class of people that have been seen for years as privileged, out of touch and who have a casual disregard for the will of the people. The public don't see this as a one off but as the culmination of years of arrogance.

It probably feels like some horrendous tidal wave, or other natural disaster, to those MPs who are feeling the brunt of it but anyone who's been talking politics on the doorstep over the last couple of weeks will know that the public mood did not just appear over night and does not just involve expenses.

Most MPs are hard working, honest folk who vote for war and privatisation. Most people go into politics because they're passionate; about ideas, about making the world a better place, about hearing the sound of their own voice. It's certainly not a sure fire way to make a million and I doubt there are many politicians who've pursued politics for financial gain, that's just a side benefit.

But let's not pop those sainthoods in the post just yet.


Whilst most activists are not in it for the cash (in fact activism costs money) let's not forget that politics, like the trade union movement, is polluted with careerists. Those who started out thinking that as they have to have a job it may at least be one that makes them feel like they're doing something worthwhile. Not evil in itself but this layer begins to develop very different interests to the rest of the movement they represent.

They begin to see the 'ordinary' supporter as something separate from themselves, something lower down the ladder. It becomes harder and harder to unpick their personal interests and those of the cause they work for until one day they stop even trying. Any political drift away from the party is brushed under the carpet in order not to jeopardise their position.

You can guarantee that Green Party members aren't careerists. Not because they are made of pure and holy stuff but because there are precious few jobs to be had, so anyone wanting to make a career out of politics gravitates to those places where there are more opportunities to make a living. That said Green politics is about ethics so you'd hope that the tendency to stuff your pockets the moment you're near the till isn't quite as strong.

The established parties, just like trade unions, have developed a deeply conservative infrastructure which serves a purpose but also forms habits that are undemocratic. They get used to making decisions behind closed doors for other people. They get used to seeing themselves as more important, more able to make those decisions until even the idea of accountability becomes offensive to them.

Of course the expenses system should be reformed, and it isn't that hard to work out how either. You won't be getting the same stories about MSPs or London Assembly members because they use a logical system where the opportunities for abuse are not so available. However, the core to the problem, the reason why people were so quick to anger, is that there is a lack of democracy and the fairest expenses system in the world won't address that. Democracy has to extend beyond the occasional tick in a box for someone to misrepresent us.

Democratic reform

For a start people need to feel represented. Their voices need to be heard. First past the post doesn't deliver this and that's why there's wide support for proportional representation, where minority views with support get heard. It also means the monolithic blocks get broken up and a more grown up politics ensues where people from different perspectives have to talk to one another and work together to get things done.

Whether the questions are war, privatisation, immigration or the climate the public are better placed to push for the politics they want under a proportional system and these ideas have a far better chance of influencing the outcome. Time servers are too comfortable to bother listening to the people and democratic reform can help keep them on track.

A two party system might have felt democratic during the post-war consensus but it's pretty clear that many right wingers don't feel represented by the Tories and that the Labour Party is no longer a place where everyone in the 'broad church' gets a go in the pulpit. We need more parties now because there are more political viewpoints that have a substantial following and are unrepresented by the main parties.

A movement for democratic change

We need a movement for democratic change that goes beyond addressing the kind of representative democracy we use. We need to promote ways to democratise society as a whole, not just how we elect those in the corridors of power. We should rethink what it means to be a citizen in a democracy.

Whether it's our workplaces, our communities or our political parties I think we should imprint the idea of democracy throughout society like words through a stick of rock. Is it really any wonder that in a country where the main parties have become less and less internally democratic that they have become more and more out of touch with the people at large?

We should have a say in every aspect of our lives no matter how much wealth we have, no matter how well placed in the bureaucracy we are. We can't rely on representatives to do this for us, no matter how charismatic they are on YouTube. A society where every citizen has a voice doesn't need brilliant leaders but it does rely on participation.

Those of us who argue for a more democratic society ought to be careful because the implications of this argument is that we all have a collective responsibility for the way society functions. If you want someone else to sort everything out for you go live in a dictatorship, if we want democracy we have to build it for ourselves - and that means work.

1 comment:

Ingenuity Lee said...

Great post. The time is right for change, it depends really on how much people want it and how much work they are willing to put in to it.