THE BLOG

Democracy Is The First Thing The British People Need. Then We Can Tackle Our Multiple Other Threats

20/06/2017 11:58 BST | Updated 20/06/2017 11:58 BST

To describe the state of British politics and governance as a mess is only a statement of the obvious.

We're not the only country in this condition. The US, with a president who came second in popularity in the recent election, whose appropriateness for the office is being questioned even from his own side of politics, is similar berefit of appropriate leadership and sense of direction. And Australia has a fractitious and unstable ruling party, and several ministers facing the risk of contempt of court charges.

These are countries with a number of things in common beyond the English language. They have media dominated by a handful of rightwing media tycoons. They are the states who've gone further done the road of extreme neoliberalism - privatisation of public services, tax cuts and tolerance, even encouragement of tax-dodging by big multinational companies that have increasingly dominated their politics. And big money donations are having a huge impact on what those politics looks like - increasingly it seems foreign-linked big money donations.

What they also have in common is electoral systems that cannot be described as democratic. These are systems where most people's votes don't count, where the parliament doesn't reflect the will of the people.

Australia and the United States are problems I'm going to leave to their citizens, but it is the UK that I'm focusing on. We're in a state where there hasn't been significant change in Westminter in a century: we're coming up to the centenary of the last big change, women getting the vote.

We had the 2015 Cameron government elected with the support of 24% of eligible voters. We now have Theresa May trying to form a minority government. Had just 39 voters made a different choice, it has been calculated it would be Jeremy Corbyn in the same position. That's not democracy. The will of the people isn't reflected in the government - and huge numbers understandably stay away from the polls in recognition of that fact.

More, the objective quality of governance - the ability of a government to form objectives and deliver on them, independent of the ideological content - is astonishingly poor. Keeping their citizens safe is a basic job of government, yet it is now becoming clear that clear and unequivocal warnings about the dangers of fire in tower blocks were made several years ago, yet nothing has been done since.

Universal credit is a much-delayed administrative and human disaster - with flaws and problems I heard being highlighted years ago now frighteningly evident. It's just emerged that a new system to subsidise childcare is in chaos. Policy pushed drivers towards diesel cars for environmental reasons, yet another arm of government was conspiring with car companies to ensure that this would be a deadly policy.

To say the current system isn't working is a statement of the obvious. To say it is not a democracy is going a bit further, but when you consider the evidence - and I haven't even started on the unelected House of Lords, constituted through an 18th-century-style system of patronage and accident of birth - that's clear.

Britain's problems are many. Poverty and inequality and slashed and outsourced public services have left whole communities, even regions, on the edge of disaster. Productivity is disastrously poor and we are failing to create jobs that younger generations can build a life on. White elephant projects (HS2, a new Heathrow runway, new roads) abound while essential schemes like electrification of our railways proceed slowly and fitfully. The student debt system is built on foundations of sand (the vast majority will never pay off their loans), and universities are heavily reliant on foreign students that the current Prime Minister wants to keep out. There's a total unpreparedness to deal with, even acknowledge, the massive complexities in negotiating Brexit. And we have an agricultural system that's trashing the natural environment and the soils our future depends on.

Making the country a democracy - bringing in a fair voting system for the Commons, the Lords and for councils, ending the ability of big money to buy the politics it wants, and producing a genuine devolution that provides power and resources to local areas to make their own decisions - is not a panacea. But it is an essential start.

It was the failure to create a democracy that got us into this place (as the parallels with the US and Australia make clear) - voting systems that increasingly produced governments that failed to relate to the will of the people. It gave us governments that hollowed out the civil service and local government and left it ineffective and desperate.

Democracy is an essential step towards tackling these problems. A government that has the trust of the people, that reflects the will of the people, that can form stable intentions and deliver on them for the long term - as many proportionally-elected governments in continental Europe do well - is Britain's single most urgent need.