PCC elections reinforce need for proper discourse on British democracy

I listened with intent this morning as Damian Green MP did the rounds on television.  He had the unenviable job of trying to paper over the cracks that have emerged since yesterday’s Police Crime Commissioner elections.  These elections have proved, once again, that we need a real conversation in this country about our democracy.

Police & Crime Commissioners (PCCs) are another bright idea of this Coalition government, first confirmed as Conservative policy way back in 2010.  On paper, it sounds wonderful – making democracy more local, having an assigned person in control of policing priorities for specific areas.  Well and good.  But the success of such policies hinges on a naive belief that local electorates are interested and educated enough about PCCs to want to vote in such elections.

PCC elections took place yesterday across a swathe of localities.  Turnout was expected to be 18.5 per cent according to the Electoral Reform Society – but the first few results have proved this to have been an optimistic estimate at best.  In Wiltshire, turnout was just 15.2 per cent – 78,794 people voted out of a possible 520,000 registered voters.  In Greater Manchester, turnout was 13.5 per cent.  In the West Midlands, this figure dropped lower, with some election turnouts at a meagre 12 per cent.

So I was highly amused this morning to hear Mr Green come out with this hilarious quote:

“The measure of this policy is not the turnout, it’s what the police and crime commissioners achieve over the next few years.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20352539)

Amazing.  Yes, Mr Green, we’re all looking forward to seeing how this experimental policy plays out over the next few years.  But what you fail to understand that, actually, the success of a policy must begin with its own legitimacy.  How can we seriously say that PCCs have a right to decide force budgets, appoint chief constables, and set local policing priorities when barely 15 per cent of the electorate gave them a vote?  How can an MP imply on live TV that a core tenet of our democracy can be dismissed as long as a policy is successful?  If you’re willing to admit on national television that turnout – whatever number – can be overlooked, what other democratic processes are similarly being overlooked?

These elections again prove the need for a proper discussion on where democracy is heading in this country.  I have read from a range of sources about the reasons people did not turn out for these elections.  Many voters did not know what they were being asked to vote for.  Candidates were unknown to potential voters.  Information was not given out on candidates and their manifestos.  How can we ever expect people to get out and vote when they don’t know what they’re voting for?

We had a similar situation with the electoral system elections and I fear that we will see a continuation of decreasing turnout in parliamentary and European elections.  We need to seize this opportunity in the wake of the PCC election results to ensure that your average Joe on the street is informed about why they’re voting, what exactly – in the most explicit terms – they are voting for, and who their choices are as candidates.  This is especially important in the case of PCCs, some of whom will be earning a £100,000 pay packet in these roles.

Apathy and disenfranchisement are crippling our democracy.  Confidence in our elected officials is at a low.  It is absolutely crucial to the future of the British political system that action is taken now to prevent these turnout figures being repeated elsewhere.  Tackling apathy starts in the classroom.  We must arm future generations with the basic facts about the country they live in and the democracy within which they will eventually participate.  If we cannot do this, then we are betraying the democracy and the freedoms which we have fought hard to keep over successive centuries.  It’s time to act now.

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Cash for access

And so rolls on the juggernaut of government scandal.  Secret videos of Conservative co-treasurer Peter Cruddas selling access to David Cameron and George Osborne emerged at the weekend and the ramifications are far from over.  Cruddas has resigned but there is increasing pressure on Number 10 to disclose more specific details about party donations and who gained ‘access’ and when.

This is not the first scandal of its kind, and no party can claim any moral superiority when it comes to cash-for-something corruption.  In 1994, Neil Hamilton MP came under fire in cash-for-questions scandal involving Mohammed Al-Fayed. In 1997, eyebrows were raised when it transpired that Bernie Eccleston had donated £1million to the Labour Party, which soon after its election decided to relax laws on tobacco advertising in Formula 1. Labour was subsequently forced to return the donation. Most recently, in 2009, four Labour peers came under the spotlight due to cash-for-influence allegations.  This is not new news.

But when the scandal itself links directly to the highest offices in the government and the Conservative Party, questions must be raised again about the quality of democracy in this country.  It is just 2 years since the widespread expenses scandal tarnished our Parliament, and yet here we are again, with another example of how easy it is to find corruption in the offices of Downing Street.

Cruddas has quite rightly resigned.  But the questions this issue raises will continue to be asked.  At a time when trust in our elected officials is at an all-time low and electorate apathy is on the increase, how can party officials be so arrogant as to think this is acceptable practice?  Cameron’s apparent ignorance to the situation has yet to be proved true either way – time will tell.  His refusal, however, to reveal who has dined at Number 10 with him raises further issues of trust.  I understand the security aspect of revealing these names, and that yes, the Prime Minister does have a right to some privacy in his home.  But when private dinners are taking place in Number 10, by rights a state-owned taxpayer-funded residency, these arguments lose weight.  If our Prime Minister has nothing to hide, then this list should be revealed and any further allegations of impropriety put to bed.

The issues were discussed at length on BBC Breakfast this morning.  It was mentioned that trade union funding has much the same influence on the Labour Party, and that cash for access and influence is nothing new.  I agree with these sentiments, as a I detailed above.  I may be accused of being a Labour apologist for what I am about to say but  I think the distinction is important.  Political parties in this country depend on party donations.  Apathy is rife in our society.  Daily examples of ignorance and disillusionment can be found everywhere.  For those reasons alone, party membership numbers have plummeted and thus the argument for allowing party donations is understandable.  People, rightly, want to donate money to the causes they believe in.

Having said that, I do not see trade union donation and private Tory interests as one and the same.  Trade union donations and influence are surely a natural consequence of a political party founded on the principles of organised labour and working-class rights.  Without trade unions, there would be no Labour Party.  Many would argue that without millionaires there would be no Conservative party, but the Tory party itself was not formally founded to protect the interests of millionaires and business.  Property, prosperity etc, yes.  But there is no exclusive rights for millionaires and private business interests in the formation of the Conservative Party, despite what it may have become.  The Labour Party is born out of the trade union movement, so can we really argue that union influence is identical to that of what is happening now within the Tory party?  I think not.

Whilst that is not to say that the intentions of trade unions are always good, I would side with the unions any day – fighting for fair pay, workers’ rights and pensions – over the elite interests of millionaires that I should imagine frequent dinners with Cameron and Osborne.  But I am betraying my political leanings here, and I don’t think this is of great importance to this blog entry because it’ll simply descend into name-calling and yaboo politics, and we see enough of that in the House of Commons on any given day.

Clearly something must be done.  Suggestions were made on BBC Breakfast this morning that laws on political party funding must be changed.  Our electorate is disengaged from the political processes so fundamental to the smooth running of our country.  Trust has to be rebuilt in all arenas of our political system, and this must mean looking at every piece of legislation relating to the operation of our political parties and institutions.  The three major parties must be an example of clean, fair practice – the rest, I think, will follow.  If nothing changes and the shrouds of secrecy over Number 10 prevail, Joe Bloggs on the street will again see this as another example that Parliament has lost touch with the electorate, and that the only way democracy works in Britain is if you have a hefty bank balance and the right contacts.  We shall see.

Voting

This blog seems to be turning into a series of rants about what’s wrong with the British political system today.  Yesterday’s blog got me thinking about voting and the problems we’ve experienced in this country, which invariably relate to disillusionment and ignorance.

Voting turnout has been on the decline since the early 1990s, and dropped to a historic low in 2001 when turnout of registered voters was just 59.4 per cent.  In 2005, this figure rose to 61.3 per cent, and in 2010 rose again to 65.1 per cent.  Turnout for the recent referendum on the voting system – 42.2 per cent – exposed a deep apathy  in our country towards the country’s political system.   Many people expressed confusion about the referendum, its purpose and its consequences.  This is a complex issue and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.  But how can we ask our citizens to vote on electoral reform when so many don’t even understand what electoral reform is?

I doubt we’ll ever see a return to the days when turnout reached high percentages during the 1950s.  But I think there is one fundamental change to be enacted within our education system which could improve both voter turnout and wider political engagement.

Quite simply, some form of politics/sociology/citizenship module needs to become compulsory in secondary schools.  I remember doing some work on citizenship during my high school years, alas it was neither memorable nor in-depth.  Young people need to be taught from an early age about the basics of politics – our institutions, their history, elections, political parties, and wider concepts within the political echelon (ideas of freedom, equality etc).  No doubt this will lead to criticisms along the lines of “brainwashing kids” and encouraging them to lean left or right depending on the personal political views of their teacher.  Steps would need to be taken to keep this in check.  I know from experience how this can happen.  My A Level politics teacher was unashamedly left wing and this did have an effect on our class.  By the time we left college, I would say 80% of our class had left or centre left views.

Not all pupils will enjoy this, and many will hate it and find it boring, but kids say the same things about a variety of school subjects.  I loathed maths (and still do).  But this knowledge has to be provided, at least.  Should pupils choose to reject it, then that is their prerogative.  We tried.  We gave them some basic knowledge about what politics means and how it affects our day-to-day lives.  Until we offer this as a mandatory part of secondary school education, we will continue to fail future generations.