UK democracy is in dire straits. All the evidence right now points to a failing system, and for quite different reasons than the US, a country now deemed an oligarchy by academic experts (Mike Lofgren’s book The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted is another absolute must-read on the failure of democracy in the US). But I’ll leave the US for now, since its democracy actually is dead, and concentrate on the UK’s, which is close to flat-lining.
Here, there are many causes, but it’s the outcome that is notable today: the public no longer believes in politicians. At all. They’ve lost confidence utterly in all the main parties. Here I’ll skim through the many causes I detect merely by tracking the media, and ponder if anything can be done.
The background to today’s situation in the UK can be summarised in two points:
- catastrophically incompetent politicians, who are inept on innumerable fronts, particularly the handling of banking regulation and the bailing out of private banks with untold billions of public funds. Other failures include the Iraq war, the banking bailout, and the near destruction of the NHS, the NHS IT programme fiasco and a generalised mess in Education and border control / immigration.
- the tribalism of the main parties is so bad it has turned all main party politicians into robots. Their basic program has the following logic: X is good if we said it but disastrous if they said it. Useful Commons debate is dead. If you watch Question Time, the live audience now openly derides all mainstream politicians present.
In fact, Question Time is an excellent monitoring system: it travels around the country, and has a live audience with both prepared and unprepared questions. The panel always includes people from the main political parties, as well as appearances by UKIP and the Greens. The audience reactions and comments over the last two years reflect the desperation with the situation and growing contempt for the main parties. I find myself agreeing mostly with their attitude – it’s quite clear that the mainstream party representatives always parrot the party line, always blame all failings to date on the last government. The only exceptions I can think of off hand are David Davis (Conservative MP), Vince Cable (Lib Dem MP and Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and Alan Johnson (Labour MP and ex-home secretary). I don’t agree with all these three say, but they do a) think about what they say and b) amazingly, even say things they really think that are different from the party line. But in general, the rest are pretty hopeless. Give me the Greens MP Caroline Lucas any day. And to be fair, Nigel Farage (UKIP) does tell you what he actually thinks rather than the pre-digested swill of the main party MPs.
Anyway, here are some of the big problems in the UK today.
The Socio-political Environment
- Primitive voting system: in 2011, a referendum to reform the voting system from the Jurassic First Past the Post (FPTP) to the Alternative Vote (optional form of Australia’s Preferential Vote system) failed, leaving us where we started. This mainly happened because all the main parties utterly failed to support it, even the Lib Dems, who championed the referendum in the first place. An uninformed and thus ignorant public voted as expected.
- The size of the house of Lords is out of control, and could hit 3 times the size of the commons, if nothing is done. The Lords is full of peers who are donors and friends of the main parties. We’re the only country where the upper house is bigger than the lower house.
- Base wage. Nov 2014: the 2015 UK Living Wage rate has been set at £7.85 per hour, an increase of 2.6% on the 2013 rate and 21% higher than the national minimum wage of £6.50 per hour; improving the take home pay of 35,000 low-paid workers across the country who are employed by over 1,000 Living Wage accredited organisations. But most companies do not pay this. The Tories generally support ‘business-friendly’ wages as the basis for a modern and flexible workforce. I.e. they support exploitation. The thing is, if you pay people properly, they a) buy more and b) pay more tax, supporting social services.
- Tax Evasion. There is an ongoing failure to get Starbucks, Amazon and many others to pay any corporate tax in the UK. And this week, we have a re-emergence of the HSBC banking scandal, already 5 years old. At issue: the failure of HMRC to prosecute for tax evasion any of the British rich who hid their money in HSBC’s Swiss ‘cash machine’, even though France and Belgium have done so. Why do we care? Oh I know…. tax evasion is theft.
- Ubiquitous surveillance – we have 1% of the world’s population, and 20% of the world’s CCTV cameras (elsewhere is catching up). The UK is now a surveillance state, with rapidly diminishing privacy. This makes people think the government is something that monitors them, not something that serves them.
- Tony Blair’s government took the UK to war in Iraq in 2003, on the basis of invented evidence about weapons of mass destruction. Even though 1,000,000 people marched against it. No other single act in recent decades represented the casual disdain of the ruling classes for the popular will. Blair is regularly described as a war criminal on television (and not only by Ian Hislop, one of Britain’s best satirists).
- Outcome: the invasion has directly fuelled the rapid growth of Islamic terrorism in the last decade, and endangered people all around the world.
- The banking bailout. In 2011, the National Audit Office concluded: In cash terms the UK government has so far spent £123.93bn, but it has at various points since the crisis began been exposed (i.e. we’ve been exposed) to a sum 10 times larger. By 2014, RBS has lost all £46bn handed to it by the taxpayer in 2009. Despite, the loss RBS said it had put aside £576m to pay staff bonuses for 2013.
- Outcome: loss to the public in the £40-50bn region. The annual budget of a large teaching hospital is around £900m.
- NHS National Programme for IT – an epic IT failure costing £9bn (or £12bn if you believe the Daily Mail) – the result of criminal incompetency (this happens to be in my professional field, and I can tell you many experts knew it would fail from day one; my precis of the failure).
- Outcome: slightly less biblical loss to the public than the banking fiasco.
- Peaceful protests blocked: climate change marchers are told to hire (expensive) private security firm to police marches, because austerity means that the police apparently can’t afford to. But they do police marches, it’s just that political pressure tells them which ones. Unpoliced marches can’t get a permit, and thus can’t happen.
How (badly) the Country is Run
Here are just a few indicators.
- Economy: austerity, aka asphyxiation of the economy by political conservatives with no comprehension of the lives of the majority, or even how an economy works. Mainstream economists like Paul Krugman showed why it can’t work in his book End this Depression Now. In recent times, the conservative government parrots the line about how unemployment is down and the economy is recovering. Sadly, they always fail to mention the fact that vast numbers of jobs are zero-hour contracts and poor quality part-time jobs. Greece just voted in a far-left government due to exhaustion with austerity. Yes, it’s a corrupt place, and they didn’t pay their taxes, but austerity just makes everything worse.
- Education: we regularly hear that the government manic obsession with league tables and performance (over 15 years or more – both Labour and Tory governments) is making teachers leave the profession in droves. Losing a lot of teachers constantly isn’t like losing a lot of hairdressers (no offence;-) for obvious reasons. An uneducated society is a failing society.
- Health: the King’s fund report on the Conservative Government’s disastrous NHS ‘reform’ contains this statement: Left the structure of the NHS so “complex, confusing and bureaucratic” that the organisation of the service “is not fit for purpose”. The conservatives continue today in their drive to privatise the NHS, but it will fail, because a lot of healthcare is not amenable to privatisation – it can only be made profitable when you have a US-style wild west system in which insurers try to maximise premiums from healthy workers while keeping out ‘risky’ individuals. The evidence that a mainly private model doesn’t work is the US’s most successful health management organisation: Kaiser Permanente, a non-profit with 10 million patients, a standard electronic health record and that doctors queue around the block for jobs that pay less than other top institutions. See above for one of the innovations that could have made a huge impact, but was a gigantic failure instead – a standard health IT infrastructure. Today in the UK, waiting lists are longer than ever, social care is in a mess, and the NHS looks forwards to 2 more years’ austerity cuts in the Conservatives or Labour win the election in May 2015.
Is there anything to be hopeful about in the UK?
When you look at the catastrophes mentioned above, and the hundreds I didn’t mention, it’s no wonder everyone here is sick of politics. Am I imagining that? How about this for a figure: the Greens UK membership has doubled from around 25,000 to around 50,000 in the last 6 months. I even joined (I was long a Greens voter in Australia, and probably one of the few who read the Greens policy book cover to cover). I went to a new-comers meeting the other night, and met 40 others who all joined out of frustration. People now appear to see small parties as places where you can have a meaningful conversation.
There isn’t much to be hopeful about in the short term. The next election will be won by the same old big parties. The only question is whether it will be a coalition, and what kind. Due to the antiquated FPTP voting system, parties can have 7 or 8% in the pools and have no MPs at Westminster at all. No, any hope must be reserved for the longer term, and for working around the political system, at least until it is completely overhauled.
One of the biggest problems in this country is the lack of vision and lack of professional competency at Westminster. The politicians we have today are largely hopeless when it comes to both. I mention competency below; vision is an even graver problem in a way, since if you don’t understand where to go, you have no chance of knowing how to get there. I see the lack of vision in the major parties as being due to three things:
- lack of imagination
- lack of understanding about what’s actually important – the planet, a socially just economy, and what’s broken – the modern financial system for example
- being out of touch with the new social economy.
One thing I should mention that actually is positive is the media here in the UK. We have our (un)fair share of tabloid press, but we also have an unfair share of pretty good mainstream papers and independent journalism. Yes, there are biases everywhere, but many countries can’t even dream of media like the BBC, Independent, Guardian, or the Spectator (not to mention Private Eye, our Charlie Hebdo), and the Telegraph and even the Times are acceptable at times. Although the Times (and Sun) are owned by Murdoch, so maybe they don’t count. The media matters, because you can’t have democracy of any kind without informed voters. It’s also the alarm system for the sanity of the state: if the satirists and independent opinions start being shut down, you’re in real trouble. Happily in the UK, the situation is largely the opposite.
What kind of things could we do in the future? Here are a few ideas.
Fix the voting system. This is FUNDAMENTAL. The right system is something like the Alternative Vote Plus (AV+) system, a mixed preferential and proportional system. But even just copying either Australia’s or Germany’s system would be a massive improvement.
This will require redrawing of boundaries, and slightly more complex voting forms. I’m sure the British will handle it. Millions of people around the world do.
Voting must be compulsory (like in these countries). The main reason for this is that if it is not, deranged crackpot parties mobilise enough votes to win seats in low turnout elections when they represent hardly anyone at all (here is a proposal to make voting compulsory in the US).
Until the voting system is fixed, think about new ways of measuring popular support for anything being voted in parliament, e.g. with democracy apps. Use these to publicise the popular vote on legislation. Ultimately, much of what the ‘official’ government decides will be shown to be wrong and undemocratic.
The Tribalism problem
The thing people hate most in the UK is the automatic defence of a party’s own policies (often demonstrably bad or at least in need of serious work) and the automatic blame assigned to the other parties / previous governments for anything that is wrong or broken. And the total inability to give credit where it’s due, which is sometimes to another party. Normal humans don’t work like this, we actually work ‘together’. The tolerance is low for politicians that function as a party immune system rather than thoughtful problem-solvers (did I just say that? We’re soooo far way from thoughtful problem-solvers in politics today…)
The younger generation especially have no tolerance for robo-politicians mouthing the script. I could criticise under 25s for not having a long enough attention span, being obsessed with Facebook and not being able to spell, but I’ll say this for them, you can’t bullshit them, and they can detect lies at a thousand metres. The ones I see on TV seem somehow interested in… the truth. Today’s politicians, mostly in their 50s and 60s appear not to be aware of this. I predict young people will just go around the outside of current politics, and the smart ones will set up their own democracy networks, and get people to vote on things. When we get a million people doing that, and their vote is different from that of parliament, what happens? I’ll tell you: there will be a battle for who actually owns democracy. I don’t see many of today’s politicians figuring in the result.
The Competency Problem
Currently, government ministers perform their duties in the deluded idea that they actually understand their portfolios. There is generally little evidence of this. A few of them are professionally capable (Vince Cable for example), but many have never held jobs outside the civil service or politics. Andrew Lansley, the NHS-wrecker being a case in point. In 2012, the BMA voted to call for his resignation.
It’s difficult to imagine how any portfolio – Education, Health, Economy, Defence etc, could be run without professionally competent people to articulate the vision, determine operational paradigms and implement systems. In theory the civil service does this, but in reality they function in a schizophrenic zone where one day they are implementing damaging legislative changes (NHS reform, out of control Education system performance bureaucracy) and the next they are trying to ‘manage’ things properly. I would guess that large parts of the upper civil service and NHS have ossified in place, and are no longer fit for purpose. Massively oversized management is a known problem in the NHS – according to official statistics, there are 274,000 managers supporting doctors and nurses. They outnumber (medical) consultants nearly seven to one. One can assume that many of these people, long past any point of technical competency are protecting their private empires and blocking needed change, as per the Peter Principle.
This is a big problem, but the bigger problem is the lack of domain-specific competence at the ministerial and legislative level. We need to fix this, primarily be involving domain expert organisations and individuals at all levels of policy formulation. This means including (contrary to habit) organisations like the BMA and Royal Colleges of Physicians and of Nurses, but also relevant professional unions, in health policy planning. Similarly in education, teachers and educational experts need to be involved directly. This won’t be enough. We need professional economists and also information technologists involved. In each sector, a successful outcome is only possible when the domain is understood, the business model is known and there is a workable information architecture.
On another angle, I think ‘professional politicians’ should be banned from politics. No person should be allowed to stand for a seat in parliament without a prior track record of at least 10 years in industry, academia or the public sector (excluding core civil service and political bureaucracy). Preferably, there should be no politicians who do not continue to do some other job. Politics should be part-time, because if it’s full time, it’s probably out of touch.
The Financial System
Firstly we must toughen banking regulations like the Swedes did a long time ago. As part of that we should nationalise RBS. A signal needs to be sent that society doesn’t prop up banks (aka the wreckers of the world economy) without taking ownership.
Then we need to consider the fact that HMRC’s inability to collect legally owed tax from the rich and from corporations actually aids and abets theft from the public of huge sums of money (HMRC staff union’s estimate – £120bn p.a.), while we are deprived of basic services.We cannot rule out citizens refusing to pay tax sometime in the future. It is clear that the current structures are not fit for purpose and cannot be trusted with our money. This would only be until a credible tax regime for multinational corporations and other high-flying evaders was set up.
Nothing is clear right now, except that current mainstream politics is universally despised. We’ll see what happens in the May election. The real work, for those with the stomach for it, will be a long haul. I think it involves taking democracy back from the parties, and into new kinds of socio-political network. Younger people will be a big factor in this.
I’m starting to feel quite young myself, now that I think about it….
Interesting to read an Australian outline many of the reasons that prompted me to leave the UK, some 22 years ago. However, there is one fundamental, ingrained, problem that you haven’t highlighted – what, for lack of a better term, I would describe as the ‘I’m alright Jack’ mentality bred by the class system. Wartimes aside, Britain is not a cohesive nation, but a group of sectional interests that’s been cruelly exposed ever since the crumbling ‘post-war consensus, was blown apart by Thatcherism. In contrast, I find my adopted country of New Zealand to contain a unity of spirit and purpose almost totally lacking in the dis-United Kingdom.
Funnily enough (as you may know by now), Australians frequently cite the ‘I’m alright Jack’ syndrome as the root cause of the mediocrity in Aus politics (although the Abbot govt probably doesn’t qualify so much as mediocre as mentally deranged).
Re: class – yes, I should have mentioned it. It’s something that takes a long time to understand. It’s insidious, largely invisible on the inside, but has very obvious effects, seen from the outside. I think the upper land-owning class has morphed into the upper business class, same sense of self-entitlement and obliviousness to the situation of kids on council estates or single mothers. The rest are harder to define and seem to be of all kinds: grafters, hard-working, politically naive. In my view, they are united in not realising just how much they are being shafted, and by whom.