Stop the rot!

Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at Kent University, darling of the Right and a regular on the punditry circuit, recently made an astonishing claim.

“Reaction to Gove’s [Ditchley] speech is revealing,” he tweeted. “One side has ideas about how to send power down not up, plus change government. The other side is still struggling to find an intellectual reply post-Brexit. Might explain why the latter lost the referendum + elections since. Criticism is easy. Where are i-d-e-a-s?”

Professor Goodwin needs to get out of his bubble more. Has he not noticed that detail-lite Eurosceptic politicians have failed to get beyond a back-of-a-fag-packet outline of Brexit? Or that, more disturbingly, Conservative MPs have voted away parliament’s rights to scrutinize and vote on trade deals (twice), demonstrating an extraordinary interpretation of ‘taking back control’? Meanwhile, those who were on the other side of the Brexit debate have been discussing B-I-G i-d-e-a-s to rein in the dishonesty of politicians, make every single person’s vote count, and to restore trust in politics.

The difficulty is that the growing number of people who are anti-Brexit and pro-democracy have been side-lined, ignored and treated as second class citizens for the past four years. Just as the Government didn’t find any Russian interference because it didn’t look for it, erstwhile Remainers’ ideas have gone unnoticed because they simply don’t get a hearing. It’s enough for the person expressing an idea to be identified as a Remainer or, more nastily, ‘Remoaner’, for it to be instantly dismissed, as if tainted and intrinsically unworthy of consideration.

Here, for what they’re worth, are some ideas on pushing power down to the people and changing government — my Charter for Change, or *Seven-Point Plan* if you will, focusing on democracy and civics:

1. Clean up public life by:

  • introducing tighter vetting standards for candidate MPs
  • making the Nolan Principles a legal duty of care for all elected officials and their special advisers (SpAds) and
  • amending the Recall of MPs Act 2015 to give the public greater powers and increased grounds for recall of MPs.

2. Make politicians more accountable to the public by:

  • switching from first-past-the-post to proportional representation to ensure every vote counts;
  • instigating a party-neutral boundary review; and
  • limiting the power of the whip.

3. Improve the public service ethic in politics by:

  • introducing term limits for MPs to, say, a maximum of three parliaments, with possible exemptions for serving leaders and ministers. Being an MP shouldn’t be a job for life;
  • banning second jobs, with exemptions for those serving in the armed forces, the NHS, or undertaking non-remunerated work, such as charity trusteeships. Being an MP should be a full-time job; and
  • authorising a one-off increase of 50 per cent of basic pay to make the point above feasible, and wean MPs from the support of donors who may unduly influence decisions.

4. Reform Parliament by:

  • deepening, broadening and strengthening the remit and powers of the House of Commons Standards Committee;
  • implementing the 2017 report on reform of the House of Lords, cutting members from 847 to 600, either by a moratorium on the creation of new peers or by adopting the practice of ‘two out and one in’; and
  • reviewing the role of money in politics, and overhauling the rules on political donations to reduce the undue influence of wealthy individuals.

5. Strengthen the voice of the people by:

  • limiting the voting rights of those who, while resident here, actively take UK tax-avoidance measures – ie those who seek to sway our politics with their wealth, without contributing to our polity – and extending the franchise to non-citizens who have paid income tax here, for a to-be-specified period of time;
  • respecting devolution by creating a separate parliament for England, to prevent England’s interests dominating the UK as a whole; and
  • granting wider powers to local authorities.

6. Protect the people from tyranny with a written constitution that:

  • restores the balance of power between the Executive (HM government), Legislature (parliament) and Judiciary (courts); both the latter having been threatened and undermined by this government’s dishonest characterization in its Brexit ‘culture wars’, and its current crusade to consolidate authoritarian power in its own hands;
  • reverses the politicisation of judiciary and civil service; and
  • sets in law constitutional conventions that today rely on good character and morals.

7. Increase public engagement in politics by:

  • offering and promoting civics classes to explain how our democracy works, so governments and other political actors are less able to exploit asymmetries in knowledge;
  • providing greater support to non-partisan local press and radio stations; and
  • protecting the population from propaganda by limiting the ownership of national press and broadcast services to UK-domiciled taxpayers; making the financing and agenda of think-tanks and other pundits 100 per cent transparent; and regulating the use of social media by political parties and lobby groups. Priorities must be outlawing psy-ops, extending “truth-in-advertising” standards to politics, and giving people an inalienable right to their own data.

You’ll notice that the present Government, for all the lip-service it pays to restoring trust in politics, is doing the exact opposite of many of these measures, some of which may explain Boris Johnson’s declining poll ratings. We’re not stupid. We see the power grab. We see the corruption. We see the cronyism.

Photo by Ear_Candy from FreeImages

My hope is that a programme of reform like the Charter for Change could help to bring the country together. In the past, I have been disappointed that the Brexit victors have shown so little interest in defending democracy, despite professing to be its champions. Erosion is usually a gradual act but, under the last two prime ministers (PMs), we have witnessed the erosion of our democracy in real-time. This has included PMs devaluing the honours system by using it to shore up MPs’ loyalty; excessive use of Henry VIII clauses in new laws, and reducing the role of parliament in scrutiny.

The seemingly endless catalogue of misconduct by ministers, including refusing to appear before select committees, failing to disclose reports in a timely manner, lying at the Dispatch Box, bypassing parliament to make policy announcements on TV – where they don’t face such tough scrutiny – and even being found in contempt of parliament, appears to be being normalised. The Brexit supporters, so fanatical about ‘taking back control’ and sovereignty, seem untroubled by these abuses of power.

However, there are signs government is mistaken if it thinks it can take unquestioning compliance for granted. The uproar over the excessive prorogation of parliament for five weeks (when five days is the norm for preparing a Queen’s speech); Dominic Cummings’s shaggy-dog story about his Durham flit (including the now-legendary and utterly incredible Barnard Castle “eye-test”), and Stanley Johnson’s Sofia swerve to dodge Greek quarantine rules (so he could visit his THIRD home), was far too extensive to be confined to those who did not vote for Brexit or for Johnson. In a country where there was a 52/48 split between those who voted for/against Brexit, you don’t get 71 per cent disapproval ratings, as Cummings did, from Remainers alone.

Photo by Sadie Parker

This is what gives me hope that an initiative like the Charter for Change could turn the growing and justified sense of  fury at the “one rule for them, another for us” to good use.There are many more aspects that could be included, but these seven suggestions would be a good start. Implement them and, hey presto!, trust in politics will begin to be restored, the UK’s democracy strengthened, and the still-raw Brexit wounds might, finally, start to heal.