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In an Age of Space Travel, Why Are We Governed by a System From the Era of the Horse and Carriage?

17/12/2014 10:50 GMT | Updated 16/02/2015 10:59 GMT

The Palace of Westminster approaching a state of near collapse with parliament too scared of the electorate to sanction the estimated £3bn cost of repairs is a perfect metaphor for a system of government in terminal decline.

Animosity towards politicians being what it is, the prospect of the Lords, Ladies and Honourables entombed in a catastrophe of their own making might seem a fitting finale for an anachronistic system that's long past its sell-by-date.

Like the Palace of Westminster, where opposing forces sit beyond a swords-length of one another, our political system hails from a time when the only way to have representation in parliament was to put a man on a horse and send him to London. The complexity of the modern world would have been inconceivable when dueling was a commonplace method of resolving disputes between gentlemen, but our political system has hardly changed at all, primarily because it suits the establishment not to change it.

Contrary to what we're led to believe, our political system is not a democracy. It's a mixed system of government comprising elements of monarchy (the supreme legislative power), aristocracy (albeit with the red seats nowadays mostly occupied by political placepersons rather than the descendants of robber barons) and electoral oligarchy (a choice between factions of a political elite).

Elections - ironically the one element of the system that provides the illusion of democracy - make the system hopelessly impractical in the modern world because an elected government lacks the power to confront the tyrannical nature of the forces ranged against it.

Political parties are miniscule interest groups whose reason for existence is to perpetuate their own existence. They are defined by the political system in which they operate, and they operate on a system of patronage, both in the promotion of their members and in the promotion of their aims.

The motives of some donors might be altruistic, such as the Quaker foundations that perpetually fund the Liberal Democrats, but mostly they're buying power and influence. This is what makes the financial services industry virtually untouchable by any authority.

Politicians are no more able to repair the seat of power than reform the global financial system. They can neither increase their own salaries nor curtail the remuneration of bankers. On the one hand, they can't risk provoking the ire of voters in the run up to an election. On the other, they need donations from bankers and hedge fund managers to fund their election campaigns.

The system requires a mandate from the people - no matter how flimsy - for a party to apply its brand of dogma in government. So, if winning an election is the Holy Grail of politics, electioneering is the cornerstone of every policy and, since every policy implies winners and losers, obfuscation becomes the default position of every politician in high office.

There's also the small matter of having a job and an income for the next five years, not to mention a title commensurate with having liveried footmen open doors for you. This is a knotty problem until you've reached the level where you can walk into a position with a merchant bank or make your fortune on the lecture circuit or earn a place on the red benches through unwavering service as a vassal to your liege lords. In short, power corrupts, and a privileged, taxpayer-subsidised, magisterial environment corrupts absolutely.

What sort of person would be more likely to join the most despised of professions? Would it be a specialist with the skill and vision to create an education system that ensures social mobility or with the balls to put an end to corporate tax avoidance and promote greater equality? Or an opportunist with no qualms about duping the electorate to advance their party's aims and therefore further their own interests, someone inured to criticism having excelled in the cut and thrust of their private school debating society?

As membership of political parties declines, so the leadership talent pool becomes smaller and the ladder to high office becomes easier to climb.

The system depends upon a largely uninformed and credulous electorate. The political establishment seeks to marginalise those who choose not to engage with it by describing them as 'apathetic'. But as Russell Brand has shown, there's a groundswell of citizens who smell the coffee. In an age where everyone has the means to publish contradictions to political spin, people have sussed that their representatives don't, in fact, represent them.

The first-past-the-post electoral system is predicated on the notion that strong government is more important than representing the will of the people. It renders abstention a blunt weapon since turnout is unimportant to the legitimacy of the result. Coalitions may become the de facto form of government as voters finally give up on traditional party loyalties, but uneasy alliances are likely to speed up the erosion not stem the tide.

Of course independent candidates are free to fork out £500 to stand but, other than in exceptional circumstances, they have no chance against the party machines, the party-biased rules of the Electoral Commission, the taxpayer-funded salaries of the incumbents and a media that demands a made-for-television, Swingometer-friendly election format.

The system perpetuates itself. It's designed to resist any meaningful change. UKIP might look like it could upset the applecart but it's just another symptom of a failing system, another minority interest group selling snake oil. While the left waits for another Nye Bevan and the right longs for another Margaret Thatcher, our faith in politics is crumbling faster than the Palace of Westminster.

It is hard to see how politicians can ever regain the trust of the electorate. Widespread disengagement with politics clearly represents a long-term existential threat to the political elite but party managers are focused on exploiting cognitive bias to win over floating voters in marginal constituencies.

Faced with the prospect of having to convince a despairing electorate of the need for permanent austerity, dwindling household incomes, the elevation of corporate rights over human rights, increased state surveillance, a perpetual war on terror and runaway climate change - issues that the system itself seems powerless to resolve, politicians are resorting to the age-old strategies of fear-mongering, bribery, scapegoating and buck-passing.

Devolution is a realpolitik distraction that equates to shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic. The devolved national authorities are essentially based on the same system as Westminster, although without the same checks and balances since they were specifically designed to be subservient to central government. They also have electoral systems intended to preserve the primacy of political parties, although half the electorate (two thirds in Wales) are not sufficiently impressed with their devolved powers to vote.

The rich got rid of their carriages once the motorcar was invented. The rest of us stopped walking to work once the bus came along. The world has progressed to the point where access to motorised transport is essential to modern life, yet we continue to be governed by a system from the carriage era.

Churchill's off-the-cuff remark that 'democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time' is a maxim that depends upon the definition of the word 'democracy'. If we can come up with artificial intelligence and send people into space, it's not beyond the wit of humankind to come up with a more intelligent, more democratic system for governing human affairs.

The problem is not unique to Britain. Representative democracy is failing everywhere in the West, including the so-called 'transition' countries in North Africa and Eastern Europe where people have quickly discovered that elections are not a panacea to free themselves from an overbearing ruling elite.

The status quo is not sacrosanct. The rules by which we are governed are not set in stone. The world needs a new, 'democratic' model of democracy. But there's clearly no point in expecting career politicians to propose one.

Pragmatism suggests it's not necessary to overthrow capitalism, which is, at its best, an efficient and effective system of distribution providing the choices that people desire. It's not at all desirable to resort to violent revolution. Revolutions invariably result in misery and, ultimately, in tyranny by any other name. Neither is it a good idea to try to reduce everyone to the lowest common denominator.

The existential issues presented by a globalised world can only be resolved through political collectivism. A new model of democracy needs to ensure equal opportunity of direct political participation rather than an equal vote. It also needs to ensure real equality under the law. It needs to separate capital from politics and for the state to be redefined as an extension of civil society. Once we're governed by such a system, we'll be able to embrace the opportunities of a globalised world rather than be oppressed by its disadvantages.

Electoral legitimacy is the weak spot in the Palace of Westminster. Once a new system is defined, that will be the place to pile the barrels of gunpowder. The building itself should become a nice little earner for the National Trust.