THE BLOG
14/07/2016 11:22 BST | Updated 15/07/2017 06:12 BST

The Crisis of Accountability and the Core Business of British Politics

It is in this decision making, first and foremost, that elected representatives should be held accountable to the wider electorate. Sadly, this notion is in crisis today, and in no small measure is generative of the major challenges we currently face.

After a tumultuous three weeks in British politics, as a new government crystallises out of the mess in which we find ourselves, it feels like now is as good a moment as any to take stock. Chilcot showed us last week how badly politicians can get things wrong; Brexit the same. And, negotiating Brexit also provides ample opportunity for our entire political class to continue getting things wrong. How did we get here? How did we seemingly transform in such a short time from one of Western Europe's most stable democracies to one wracked with uncertainty? The answer to these questions in fact point to a much longer set of processes that have lead to a to a 'crisis of accountability' in UK Politics. There are many facets to this crisis, but I will focus on two of its key elements here today.

First, consider this: of the last five prime ministers, from Major to May, only two - Blair and Cameron - were directly elected by the population at large. Although Major would go on eventually to win an election in 1992, in their initial elevation to the role of PM, the rest were either elected by party memberships, which make up a tiny fraction of the wider electorate, or worse, in the case of Brown, were promised the role of PM in an Islington restaurant 13 years earlier (and then 'elected' by the party thereafter).

Furthermore, this kind of selection rather than election is far too often repeated at the level of the MP: the vast majority of MPs who stand before us at elections have already been selected by the selection committees of our mainstream parties. Oftentimes, they are big name candidates parachuted into seats with safe majorities. This strains at the notion of political accountability, which should be established by a popular vote, and distances our elected representatives from us. Crucially, it also distances them from their sense of responsibility to us, the electorate.

This distancing is compounded by our second long term problem: the emergence over several decades in British politics of a focus on press management that elevates image and message above all else. It is instructive to think that Clement Attlee in 1945 had just one Press Officer, one official to deal with the entire press. This was largely the case for most of his successors, up to and including Margaret Thatcher in 1979 who left most of the press management to the highly visible and heavily involved Bernard Ingham as Press Officer. Ingham's approach would throughout the 1980s reshape the role of the press officer into a press team; from there, jump forward to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the Downing Street of Tony Blair had an entire Directorate of Communications, which would not only be crucial in selling the invasion to a sceptical public but had already been integral to both of New Labour's election victories.

Of course, these developments are largely in response to the emergence of an ever more critical press in the post-war period. But it would be wrong for us to lay the blame at the door of the press: the need for a vibrant, critical press - holding our elected politicians to account by shining a spotlight on everything they do - is surely a sign of a healthy democracy. Rather, it is in the particular way politicians with ever larger political comms teams have responded to the press where the problem lies: instead of challenging the dominance of the press, they have taken the tools and outlook of the press as their own. The message and its reception is God, the management of which the religion.

The particular mindset this produces in politicians not only shapes their relationship to the media, but in fact pervades their entire approach to Politics. Read the July 2002 note on Iraq from Tony Blair to President Bush released in Chilcot last week and we can see clearly the toll it has taken: after Blair tells Bush that he is 'with him whatever', Blair's focus in the rest of the memo is overwhelmingly on message management. How can we convince the Germans, the French, and the Spanish? How would the initial invasion be received by the rest of the coalition and the public at large?

We were to see all too clearly again the same empty strategising around message management during the EU referendum. Of course there was the Boris Bus, with its insidious £350m lie, and the undeniably racist Farage poster; both obvious examples of elevating message management above all else. But the same could be said of Cameron and Osborne, who repeatedly flashed before us the most sensational, lurid indicators of post Brexit chaos rather than spending their energies trying to make a positive case for EU membership. And on the left, the pattern was repeated: Jeremy Corbyn, in trying to shape a message that would fall softly on the ears of both the Parliamentary Labour Party and the party membership that brought him to the leadership, flunked his lines on both fronts with his miserly 7 and a half out of 10 commitment to the EU.

This combination of an ever weaker link between politicians and the electorate - a move toward selection rather than election - and the elevation of message management to the centre of political life means that politicians are increasingly losing sight of what we might call their core business; that is, the business of actually governing by making the right calls consistently on key decisions on our behalf, the consequences for their reputation or image (or careers) be damned. It is in this decision making, first and foremost, that elected representatives should be held accountable to the wider electorate. Sadly, this notion is in crisis today, and in no small measure is generative of the major challenges we currently face.