Photo by Vuk Valcic
Artillery Row

UK politics is a cartel closed to the young

Children and young adults are locked out of power and economic advantage

Never has it felt more apparent that our political system is designed to protect its own short term interests — a cartel of “small c” conservative thinkers.

For two years now we’ve been living with an errant executive that has, by and large, acted unfettered with only the scantest regard to liberty, bodily autonomy and indeed basic ethics. It has been aided and abetted by an ineffectual or complicit Opposition that seems, at least until recently, to have variously wafted or cheered on whatever egregious dictat was proposed.

At times, the actions of that executive have more closely resembled a criminal cartel than those of global statesmen and women — take the award of PPE contracts to party donors and cronies, an affair which led Angela Rayner to conclude, as many might, that this is a government “engulfed in corruption”.

Even absent outright corruption there has been profligacy on a criminally obscene scale. The test, trace and isolation budget exceeded the entire budget of the Home Office only to be branded by former Treasury chief Lord MacPherson as “the most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time”. Not to mention recklessness bordering on callousness in repeated and prolonged school closures, and medical coercion breaching bodily autonomy, morality and ethics.

The harm that has been heaped on society goes beyond anything I reasonably expected to see in my lifetime: to children, some one million of whom are now on waiting lists for mental health services; to our economy, now flirting with Weimar-style inflation; and to our national psyche. Instead of the proud, virtuous, tolerant, “get on with it” nation many of us fancied ourselves to be, we’ve been reduced to a scandalised, bickering mess.

We are staring down the barrel of an era-defining fall in living standards

There has hardly ever been a greater need in our modern times for politicians to focus on the job they’re elected to do (how staggeringly ironic to see Jacob Rees-Mogg criticising civil servants for a lack of productivity) yet here we are, once again with Parliamentary time swallowed by political scandal.

The details of Partygate no longer seem important, other than in meaning many more weeks lost to posturing and point-scoring, and yet further erosion of public trust in our political system. The PM’s best case is already bad enough: having been fined he may now also be found guilty of knowingly breaking the law and misleading Parliament. Regardless, to the public he already appears guilty of seeking to evade Parliamentary scrutiny.

In this context, the manoeuvrings of Number 10 and the whips this week have been toxic, leading to the sickening spectacle of Tory MPs once again being asked to debase themselves to defend the Boss and further compromising a party already haemorrhaging credibility. The plan was eventually foiled by a small group of MPs and Ministers refusing to back down, but only nine out of three hundred and fifty-eight Conservative Parliamentarians have so far called for Boris to go. This will be a significant reality check for many voters as they contemplate ballot papers next week.

Tempting though it would be to attribute responsibility solely to the inner circle of Government (the mob compelling parliamentarians to betray themselves), events of this week are symptomatic of a deeper malaise.

“The measure of a man is what he does with power,” said Plato. The same might be said of our body politic as a whole.

We are staring down the barrel of an era-defining fall in living standards. Over the last two years we have knowingly blighted the lives and life chances of our next generation to a degree that would previously have been unthinkable. Yet there’s been no space for bold, ambitious, original thinking. Even before this current disaster unfolded, what had Parliament really achieved in the last two decades that our children or grandchildren will regard as visionary or involving brave long-term thinking?

The problem runs deeper than one troubled party. It lies in the failure of many, perhaps all, of the checks and balances crucial for a functioning democracy. There’s a bitter irony that for much of this latest episode the only effective check on an executive intent on overreach has been courageous Tory parliamentarians — this week no exception in that regard.

Our politics remains plagued by convention, conservativism and, indeed, cartelism. Our essentially “red vs blue” party system sets an impossibly high bar to entry for new and alternative political mindsets. The brief Lib-Con coalition aside, no other party has been involved in government since WW2.

Reform of the anti-democratic whipping system is long overdue

This contributes to a legislative and executive dogged by short-termism, making successive Parliaments apparently unable to plan for the lifespan of cats, let alone voters and their children. As just evidenced, the whipping system allows Number 10 to dictate, far too often, how MPs vote — typically to serve the interests of its current occupant. I would rather my elected representative be encouraged to vote with their conscience than for career rewards or for reasons of personal or political blackmail. Witness the reports in late 2020 of MPs being told to “vote against this footballer’s campaign to feed poor kids — or we’ll cancel that new school in the poorest part of your constituency”. That a hundred and twenty-three of our MPs are Ministers only exacerbates the conflicts. The Westminster lifestyle with its three or four obligatory nights in London precludes many able people from breaking into the political scene. As we’ve seen over the last two years, the whole system is impossibly stacked against the young, who remain largely unrepresented.

Our political system stymies competition and allows party politics to dominate, rather than the views and interests of constituents. As Andy Burnham has said, “England is one of the most politically over-centralised countries in the world. Too much power is concentrated in one place and in the hands of too few… The unelected and unaccountable hold more than the elected and that is in large part the product of the antiquated whip system.”

They say you must stir up the waters to catch fish. I say a tsunami is needed.

For starters, reform of the anti-democratic whipping system is long overdue. “I’m willing to urinate all over their conventions”, said Steve Baker MP last week, a sentiment many voters will share. More radical ideas capable of reinvigorating our democratic system are out there, too, if we want them: alternative models for more open democracy, “NOTA” voting (“None of the above” — i.e., a ballot option which allows the voter to indicate disapproval of all candidates in a voting system), and countless means to enfranchise the long-term interests of our children.

To date, none seems to have been given serious consideration by either policy-makers or the public. If there is hope for our flawed Parliamentary system, it must be that the last two years have rendered enough people on left and right politically homeless to generate a renewed energy and incentive to do just that.

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