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The Political System Doesn't Work For Most Of Us, So Let's Change It

04/06/2013 17:43 BST | Updated 04/08/2013 10:12 BST
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The tenth annual Audit of Political Engagement from the Hansard Society, a non-partisan parliamentary political research charity, suggests fundamental constitutional change is needed urgently as more people now want to participate directly in government than intend to vote in the next general election.

Just 41% of the public said they would be certain to vote - down from 48% last year and 58% the year before, while 42% said they would like to be involved in national decision-making - up from 37% last year. Moreover, the Hansard report suggests the majority of Britons are disillusioned with parliamentary politics. A mere 23% said they were satisfied with the way MPs are doing their job - down from 29% in 2010, a finding supported by a recent Ipsos MORI poll showing that only 18% trust politicians to tell the truth.

It is difficult to imagine how trust in politicians can ever be restored. Voting for someone you don't trust would clearly be irrational. So not voting is a passive form of protest. Politicians, needless to say, prefer to dismiss not voting as 'apathy' rather than accept it as a sensible reaction to their mendaciousness. Labour's recent proposal to offer lottery tickets as an inducement to voters shows the gulf in aspiration between politicians and their constituents. The politicians just want the votes. The people just want good government. It's easier to imagine a new system of government in which politicians don't feature at all.

Democracy means 'government by the many'. Britain is governed by the few. That's 'oligarchy'. The great myth of British democracy is that the people can choose the government they deserve when, thanks to an anachronistic electoral system designed to put tiny interest groups into government, their choice is limited to two sides of the same coin.

In theory, the United Kingdom has a mixed constitution comprising elements of monarchy - 'government by one', aristocracy - 'government by an elite', and democracy. This arrangement was thought desirable after the English Civil War to prevent abuses of power. But nowadays power is concentrated in the hands of a presidential-style leadership clique. Politicians have elevated themselves to the aristocracy, expelling the old hereditary peers to pack the House of Lords with expenses-for-life political placemen, and government is characterised by self-righteous irresponsibility and reckless ineptitude hidden beneath a miasma of rhetoric and spin. The Hansard Society findings could mean that the British public has finally had enough of politicians and political parties.

Whilst the status quo is the only solution that can't be vetoed, it is certainly not sacrosanct. The establishment does not rule by divine right and our system of government is not set in stone. We can change it. If most of us want to participate in government then we might as well decide policy and approve legislation ourselves and have it implemented by a carefully chosen collegial executive of technical experts without legislative power.

Clearly we can't all shout at once, and most of us have neither the time nor the inclination to learn enough about the issues affecting the health service or social security or immigration or capital punishment to make informed decisions. But we could randomly select - as in jury service - a representative cross-section of society to spend two or three months being paid to make considered decisions on our behalf, having first been briefed on all the positions in a neutral manner in a relaxed, non-confrontational environment.

There is no need in the modern age to put a man on a horse and send him off to London to sit in parliament. Technology makes it simple for ordinary people to participate in government from wherever they live. If allotted representatives - one for every 1,000 people - are organised into a linked national network of community assemblies - one for every 60,000 people - that make decisions in sets, then the Houses of Parliament and the entire hotchpotch of local government could be replaced with around 1,100 assemblies, each with a deliberative chamber for deciding policy and a majorative chamber for approving legislation. The minds of more than 60,000 people could be focused on finding the 'rightest' solutions for the common good. The decisions of sets of assemblies working on the same issues simultaneously would aggregate out extreme positions and provide a formidable barrier to corruption by vested interests.

This system is called the New Model Democracy. It amounts to what Abraham Lincoln called "government of the people by the people". It could create in Britain the most progressive democracy in the world. We'd have an intelligent, efficient and effective form of government capable of dealing with increasingly complex twenty-first century issues.

Of course politicians are unlikely to vote for change that's not in their interests. If we want participatory democracy, we'll have to change the system ourselves. So, 650 members of the Ordinary People Movement will aim to represent the 42% of voters who want to participate by standing for election on a platform of constitutional change. That proportion of the vote would be more than enough to secure a system-changing parliamentary majority.