Thursday, May 21, 2009

Layer 159 Towards A New Politics: Bring It On.

As I was saying yesterday before running out of time and energy - hopefully people are waking up and realising that the only thing they have left to believe in and trust is themselves. Not the City. Not Westminster. Not the Queen. And not God either.

In yesterday's Guardian, Jonathan Freedland was saying something similar:

The Speaker exits with revolution in the air. I say, bring it on

The essence of the piece is summed up in his final paragraph:

“In the 21st century, we can no longer accept that 646 individuals plus an unelected monarch are sovereign. Power should belong to all of us. And if that means revolution, bring it on.”

He also makes these key points:

“For years, those of us who yearned for a radical shakeup of our constitution were told we could dream on. Save it for the seminar room, the critics said: what people care about are jobs and services, not dry, academic discussions about governance.

Well, guess what. They care now.

Michael Martin the first Speaker of the House of Commons to be forced out since Sir John Trevor in 1695 . . . in the age of revolution.

It is revolution that is in the air now, as voters share a sense of revulsion that has no recent precedent. When the nation loathes not this individual or even that political party, but the entire governing class – yearning to throw out the whole rotten lot of them – then the ground begins to tremble.

That is why the expenses affair dwarfs the sleaze episodes of the 1990s. Then the outrage focused on the Tories alone, allowing Labour to present itself as the clean, unsullied alternative. It's different now. People revile the party of Elliot Morley, Hazel Blears and Shahid Malik, with their bogus mortgage claims, flipping and home-cinema systems – but they can hardly hail the men of moats and manure in the Tory party. All they feel is contempt for the system itself.

They're right too. For the great expenses fraud is not some freak ailment in an otherwise healthy body politic. It is a symptom of a system that is wholly dysfunctional, diseased to its very heart.

Speaker Martin's fate was to embody several aspects of that rottenness. Its secrecy, fighting through the courts to keep expenses hidden; its profligacy, claiming £4,000 for his wife's taxi fares and spending £700,000 refurbishing Speaker's House, as well as its antiquated procedures and clubbishness.

With his departure, though, he has performed a valuable service. The fact that nothing like it has happened for more than three centuries confirms that these are indeed revolutionary times – and that radical, convention-breaking change is possible.

That does not mean simply dealing with the specific business of allowances, though of course that is necessary.

It's the attitude that says, "We're in charge: who are you to challenge us?"

It is this, not the mechanics of expenses, that has to change. It will require MPs to see themselves not as masters of their own universe, who expect the taxpayer to pamper them with silk cushions and country houses as if that is their divine right – but as employees of the people who elect them.

Rhetorically, our politicians have nodded to this notion: Blair promised Labour would be "servants of the people." But now we know they never truly saw themselves that way. If they did, they would have had to undertake the revolutionary move our ancestors shied away from more than 300 years ago – and which has eluded us ever since.

It is the shift from our current system – which rests on the belief that the crown-in-parliament is sovereign – to the simpler notion that it is the people who are sovereign in their own land.

Plenty of other nations have made that move, most famously the US, whose founding document asserts that power starts with "We the people". But we never did. Instead, in Britain, power still belongs at the top – with the crown and the palace of Westminster

Today the Guardian launches online A New Politics, a call for a radical shakeup of our constitution, arguing for reform of everything from party funding to the role of the attorney general. But the common thread that must run through any new constitution for Britain has to be the shift from parliamentary to popular sovereignty. Once you understand that in a true democracy the people are sovereign, the next moves become obvious.

Of course the second chamber has to be elected: a sovereign people chooses who writes the laws that govern them.

Keep applying the same logic and it all becomes pretty obvious. Of course there should be fixed parliamentary terms: it's the boss who decides when the employee's contract terminates. Yet in our system it's the other way around, with the prime minister telling us when he plans to "go to the country".

Should there be a written constitution? Naturally. If you own a house, you have a copy of the deeds; if you buy a car, you get an owner's manual explaining how it works. And we are the owners.

Attached to that document could be a full statement of our rights. Not the "Bill of Rights and Responsibilities" proposed by the two main parties, because that implies our rights are handed down by our masters, conditional on good behaviour. But fundamental rights are ours unconditionally – because we are in charge.

All the flummery and archaic language should be banished too: it shrouds parliament in a cloud of mystique, opaque to all but a select priesthood. But if it belongs to us it should be conducted in a language and a style any one of us could understand.

This is the simple rule that should be run over every part of our constitution. Right now it is shaped by the assumption that the crown, today represented by the executive, is in charge, in harness with a parliament it dominates. Any change must rest on a different premise, that the people are sovereign.

This is why Gordon Brown's statement was disappointing . . . Twice he made the ritual bow before "respect for parliamentary sovereignty". He doesn't yet understand that it is this very idea that lies at the heart of the problem.”


The problem with simply replacing the Queen with a president is that we end up with George W Bush, aided and abetted by a compliant legislature pretending to be representatives of “we, the people”, when in fact they're the puppets of their parties, which in turn are the playthings of corporate and billionaire funding.

Still, having an elected head of state and an elected Upper House would be progress, providing we had a media and an Internet-linked electorate that kept them all under proper scrutiny and analysis, providing we have a political culture that people are able and willing to engage with.


Here are some extracts from Seamus Milne's piece in the Guardian yesterday:

Purge the professionals and let party democracy breathe

This meltdown creates opportunities as well as dangers. But more than technocratic fixes, we need real political choice.

"What started as a political scandal has tipped over into a full-blown crisis of Britain's entire political system. There's no doubt that the Commons Speaker's resignation was long overdue. But if MPs imagine that by scapegoating Michael Martin for their own scams they will appease popular revulsion, they are dreaming. The drip-drip revelations of help-yourself entitlement have only entrenched a gulf between the political elite and the public that's been widening for two decades: the product of narrowing political choice, professionalisation of politics, shameless government deceit about war and peace, and devastating financial collapse.

Now both Britain's governing and business classes are discredited. And what the Daily Telegraph, orchestrator of the expenses leaks, yesterday called "a very British revolution" is going to have to go a good deal further than a change of guard in a largely ceremonial post of fake feudal flummery to steady the horses. Gordon Brown seems at last dimly to perceive what has to be done.

But the public doesn't want apologies, cheques or promises of further inquiries – it wants heads on a platter without further delay. That's why the only way to restore some confidence in Labour MPs – the most damaged by the scandal – is to drive through a sweeping round of reselections by local parties.

To avoid the kind of stitch-ups by regional officials which have packed parliament with New Labour clones, the normal procedures would have to be opened up. But putting all but the most blameless MPs through a process of reselection would offer the chance both to revive local democracy and replace some Tweedledum career politicians with more independent, rooted and working-class candidates.

But Brown is still balking at sacking his communities secretary Hazel Blears for her expenses profiteering, letting it be known he has "full confidence" in her while at the same time describing her behaviour as "totally unacceptable".

A purge of miscreants, however, is clearly not enough. What has become a crisis of democracy can only be overcome with a programme of democratic reform. Both Brownite and Blairite members of the cabinet are now talking about launching a constitutional convention to reshape the whole political structure, covering everything from an elected Lords and independent select committees to electoral reform and an overhaul of party funding.

Anything that cracks open the system and dispenses with perennial British complacency about the "mother of parliaments" has got to be welcome. But technocratic fixes won't by themselves solve the problem. Unless parliamentary democracy is about choice, it's meaningless. The legacy of New Labour is a contest over the narrowest of political and economic options, presided over by highly centralised party machines, where internal democracy has withered and party members have drifted away.

There is no reason why any of the reforms being discussed would automatically overcome that dismal inheritance. Unless new parties are able to break the existing political monopoly – a mountain to climb under first-past-the-post even in current circumstances – that would require an end to authoritarian party control, space for internal pluralism, and the local right to choose election candidates freely.

For Labour in particular, such an upheaval would mean a reconstitution of the party. But without a profound change in the kind of people who are chosen as MPs and a reconnection between electors and elected, underpinned by a right of recall, this crisis of representation will not be overcome.

The political crisis triggered by the Commons expenses scandal is itself linked to the economic crisis that preceded it. Both are the product of an economic model that brooked no alternative, was built on greed and drove people to see themselves as consumers rather than citizens. And just as in the case of the economic crash, the constitutional meltdown creates opportunities as well as dangers for progressive and radical politics.

By bringing to a head long-running alienation from mainstream politics at a time when the economic system is seen to have failed, the crisis offers a chance to bust the cosy political cartels that have underpinned it, and create new alliances for a real change of direction. Everything is potentially in play, including the survival of the parties in their current form. If Brown were able to seize the moment, the government could shape the direction of reform.

But there is also a risk that disgust at the antics of the political class can feed a reactionary mood that rejects the idea that politics can improve people's lives and embraces the call for a small state at a time of retrenchment. Not surprisingly, the atmosphere in Downing Street is febrile. As one close ally of the prime minister told me yesterday: "There is a dangerous void. If the governing elite doesn't grab the opportunity, the people will overthrow them."


For anyone needing some gen on Hazel Blears here's a very comprehensive piece by John Harris:

'It will take years for my reputation to recover'

The sight of Hazel Blears brandishing her cheque on TV may prove the most enduring image of the whole expenses furore. But how did this straight-talking, working-class MP become the focus of the scandal? And can she possibly survive it?

Surely the real question is, what reputation? Surely her reputation is for being a hideous Blairite unprincipled conniving NuLabour clone? No recovery necessary.


A New Politics website.

The “A New Politics” section of the Guardian's website can be accessed here:

Lots of good stuff, and lots of responses and contributions from readers.


The Christian Brothers and Sisters.

For anyone who can stomach it, the Guardian's report on the abuse of children in Ireland by The Christian Brothers and The Sisters of Mercy can be seen here:

See also:

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