Political Promise

What did Nick Clegg mean when he used the phrase “New Politics?”

In Michael Indian on July 9, 2010 at 8:52 am

By Mike Indian

A lot in Westminster is certainly new these days. A third of the House of Commons are fresh faced MPs. The government is formed of what is, on the surface, an unforeseen partnership. This week, we have some truly formidable pledges on political and constitutional reform.

Stepping fully into the limelight for the first time, Nick Clegg unveiled policy plans that will (literally) redraw the political map of the United Kingdom. Whilst media attention may have focused on the tantalising carrot of electoral reform, there was significant stick behind it.

Firstly, fixed term parliaments, already a core tenant of most major democracies. Rewind a year, and in a debate between comedian Eddie Izzard, then Labour Minister Caroline Flint and myself, any suggestion of this move was dismissed outright. Izzard in particular, drawing heavily on his own experience of American politics, said it would simply amount to constant electioneering by representatives.  I only wish I had thought to quote Pippa Norris’ concept of permanent campaigning to him at the time!

However, the fact is that I find myself on the side opposing this motion. Its inclusion in Clegg’s package of reforms does not amount to an altruistic aim of expanding British democracy. On one level, it forms part of a knee jerk response to the public upset to the farce of speculation generated by Gordon Brown over the date for the last election. On another, it represents the Coalition’s main mechanism to ensure its own survival. The outcry over the 55% dissolution rule reflects the ease with which this transparent selfishness was spotted.

Nevertheless, this measure does represent one of the best opportunities to ensure the stable government this nation desperately needs over the Parliament. Political stability breeds economic assurance to the money markets. So, whilst this measure is not quite as democratic as it may seem, let’s accept it for now. We can work on it later.

Secondly, we come to the reduction in the number of MPs and the redrawing of constituency boundaries to accompany it. Any logic for this being a cost cutting measure is an empty claim. Look to the projected 25-40% cuts in government departments to reduce the deficit and rein in public spending. Consider instead the costs of the Electoral Commission reshaping the political landscape of our country. Furthermore, the government wishes to hand this wildly expensive task to an agency whose competence has yet to be fully questioned following the debacle of overstretched polling stations on 6th May.

Moreover, consider the cost to the constituents. A loss of fifty elected representatives will undoubtedly damage the core tenant of our democracy, the link between citizen and representative, through increasing the difficulty of access and problems in vital communication. Politically peripheral areas like Wales and Scotland are likely to be the biggest losers. In the case of Scotland with the heavy cuts in funding coming, there has never been a more important time to reaffirm the connection to Westminster. You cannot restore faith in our political system by taking the wheels off of it.

But Clegg does deliver some real change in the form of the power of recall for constituents over their MP. This might be the best thing to come out of the expenses scandal, and is a perfect reading of the electorate’s disillusioned mood to national politicians. Many elements are still needed to make this country a truly representative democracy. Constituency primaries for party candidates are an expensive, but worthwhile method of restoring trust and involvement in the political process by ending the practicing of parties parachuting in candidates who do not fit their constituency. Add in a change in the electoral system to a preference system to end the elements of wasted votes and to raise the number of marginal seats, and there is a point to the act of voting again. The link between voter and MP is reinforced and once you have underlined that link you truly have “New Politics.”

Last year, I wrote that 2010 was our time for change. That change has now begun, and now that it has we have to seize it with both hands.


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