Monday, 8 February 2010

Restoring trust?

Politics over the next few years is going to be about money. Not MPs' expenses, or even bankers' bonuses, but public money: where it goes, and more importantly where it doesn't go. It's going to be about cuts and squeezes, and the news reports are going to be full of pain. Hospitals closing. People dying because a vital drug wasn't available in their area. Students facing unemployment after failing to secure that increasingly elusive university place. More military equipment shortages. The anti-politician hatefest of the past year is going to seem like an indulgence.

That isn't to minimise the impact of the expenses scandal, or the longer-building disaffection with politics over the past decade or two. Anti-politician sentiment isn't going to go away, but it won't be the news. Rather, it will be the background to the news. The politicians who implement the cuts at the behest of the international bond markets will be the same people who - whichever party they belong to - have been telling us recently that the most vital thing they have to do is to "re-connect" with the voters, to be answerable and accountable to the public. The trouble is, they aren't answerable to the public; or at least, they are less answerable to the public than to the markets, to the great regulation sausage-machine of the EU, to the inexorable flows of power around the world in which domestic politicians can be as helpless as a seal tossed around in a really big wave.

Last week we had Gordon Brown, a true believer if any there were in centralised control, promising to disperse power to the people. His preferred method was a voting system that would have given Tony Blair even larger majorities than he actually obtained. He portrayed himself, unconvincingly, as a long-standing reformer and believer decentralisation, who wanted to make politics "the focus" of people's idealism and hopes. He claimed to have a "radical, modern, open and democratic agenda to change the way our country governs itself."

All this is a bit rich coming from him, of course. And a large part of the speech comprised the usual drawing of artificial lines between Labour and the Conservatives, with any policy he happened to support inevitably representing progress, opposition to which could only be characterised as reaction. He even claimed that there was "a choice between the new politics of giving the people a right to recall MPs who break the rules where parliament itself fails to act, or refusing the people a say even if members place their personal greed above their public duty." Given that David Cameron announced his support of that policy quite some time ago, and Brown is presumably supporting it now, I'm not sure who you're meant to vote for if you believe it to be a bad idea. Another of his supposed choices was:


Whether we advance towards a new politics, where individuals have more say and more control over their lives or whether - by doing nothing, or by design - we retreat into a discredited old politics, leaving power concentrated in the hands of the old elites.


Today David Cameron said this:

We are a new generation, come of age in the modern world of openness and accountability. And when we say we will take power from the political elite and give it to the man and woman in the street - it's not just because we believe it will help fix broken politics. It's what we believe, full stop.


Some of the solutions offered by the party leaders to effect this great change differ. Others of them are the same, or are expressed in remarkably similar language. Each accuses the other of being the only obstacle to reform, yet their diagnosis of the problem is indistinguishable. Cameron says:

But strengthening Parliament also means making sure people feel they can play a part in it. At the moment the conversation between Parliament and the country is more like a monologue: one talks, the country listens.


What a strange comment. Parliament talks, yes; but the country jeers. But I suppose the end result is the same. Meanwhile Brown says:

We will ensure that the new politics will be delivered in the House of Commons, and we will do more to restore the relationship of mutual respect between MPs and those who elect them.


Cameron says:

We will push power down not just from the government to parliament but from Whitehall to communities; from the state to citizens; from Brussels to Britain; from judges to the people; from bureaucracy to democracy. It’s your community and you should have control over it – so we need decentralisation.


Brown says:

But the test of our commitment to democracy is not merely the changes we make to the institutions at the centre: it is how far we are prepared to give power away; to give citizens themselves greater control over their lives.


Cameron says:

It’s your money and you should know what is being done with it – that is why we need transparency. That’s why we will put every item of government spending over £25,000 online and for all to see. We’re going to do the same for every public sector salary over £150,000. We will set government data free, and we will give the public a right to request any government data on anything they want that is currently locked up in a vault.


Brown says:

In a short space of months we have now created data.gov.uk which already opens over 2,500 data sets to enable people to hold us to account and make decisions about their public services - from monitoring traffic accidents locally to seeing how your local schools are performing.

But this is just the start of creating new, more transparent public services and public sector bodies.


I'm not suggesting the two speeches were indistinguishable, still less that the two men's approach to reform would be indistinguishable. For all his talk of decentralisation, Gordon Brown believes with every fibre of his being in the growth of the state and, as Cameron put it today, "that politics is the answer to everything." His proposed reforms are all about increasing the legitimacy of government. It's particularly telling that he referred to the government as "we" and the citizens as "they". They the people, indeed.

Cameron promises that if the voters put the Tories in power they will "see a government that understands that there are times it needs to shut up, leave people alone and gets on with the job it was elected to do." There are even promises of direct public imput into the legislative process, with bills being opened up to public scrutiny as part of their passage. "Any petition with a million signatures will allow members of the public to table a Bill that could end up being debated and voted on by MPs" - though I notice the "could". Brown's definition of "direct democracy", by contrast, seems to be satisfied by increasing the number of hits on government websites.

These differences may reflect a genuine ideological commitment on the part of the Cameron leadership to replacing the ancient British tradition of rule by backroom stitch-up with a genuine popular democracy. Or it may be more a function of the fact that Cameron is in Opposition while Brown is in government. Opposition politicians generally want to disperse power, government politicians to accumulate and exercise it. Even Mrs Thatcher who boasted of "rolling back the frontiers of the state" left a state more centrally directed than any in Europe.

In the same category, I suspect, is Cameron's promise of an end to the "endless relaunches, initiatives, summits - politics and government as some demented branch of the entertainment industry." The political culture associated with Blair, Mandelson, Campbell, McBride, Whelan and the others has indeed been pernicious. But it was in part a consequence of the very openness that leads every ministerial move to be minutely scrutinised, every word pored over for evidence of a split or a gaffe. Perhaps that's why Cameron wants journalists to leave politicians alone:

But this change also needs something else. It requires a change in the attitude not just of politicians, but of the media too. I want to see a whole new culture of responsibility from those who report the news....

Most people who pursue a career in politics do so because they want to serve and because they want to do good. That should be recognised. Parliament does important and effective work, yet it is barely reported.


That last line, though accurate when it comes to the decline in reporting (but did anyone really read those old reports?), sits oddly with his earlier description of Parliament as "weak" and (thanks to Labour) "a waste of space", "useless" at scrutinising legislation.

Cameron is right that most politicians, most of the time, have honest intentions. That's hardly relevant, though, to the crisis in representative democracy that all national politicians are trying to banish with speeches and, at the best, tinkering with the system. Democracy has always relied for its legitimacy upon the people's ignorance of their own powerlessness. In the new information age, the powerless not only of the people but of the elected representatives is impossible to hide.