What Nigel Farrage has got right … and the need for radical political reform

“He operates in the gulf between the public and us here at Westminster. And there’s plenty of room for him there.” For most people in the UK there is no need to explain who is being described here. For any foreign readers, it is a quote about Nigel Farrage, leader of the UK Independence Party (and it was said by one of the UK’s most distinguished Parliamentarians, Frank Field). However, if the word “Westminster” was replaced with “Washington DC”, or “Brussels”, or “Paris” etc, then it could easily refer to any of a growing number of anti-establishment parties – the US Tea Party, the French Front National, the Spanish Podemos or the Greek Syriza. There is clearly a crisis in democracy in the West. Gallup’s global polling shows that in much of the West the majority of the public has lost confidence in their form of national government. This is at its most dramatic in the Mediterranean countries, e.g. in Spain where confidence has fallen from 58% in 2008 to 18% in 2013, although this still puts it ahead of Italy, Greece and Portugal! National government in these 4 countries enjoys lower public confidence than in the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Whilst confidence remains high in some Nordic countries (e.g. Norway at 66%) and above 50% in several other western countries like Canada and New Zealand, it is also very optimistic in many developing countries such as Ethiopia (77%), Ecuador (62%) and India (56%). But the majority of  British people lack confidence in national government (just 38% are confident), a similar level to the French, Danish and Japanese. It’s better than in the US (29%) but well behind Afghanistan (48%)! Indeed, 4 out of 10 British people lack confidence even in the honesty of national elections, albeit that’s better than in the US where it is 6 out of 10. In the UK, public satisfaction with the leaders of the 3 main political parties has reached a historic low, with the combined scores of all 3 being -22%. One of the most striking manifestations of public alienation is voters staying away from the ballot box. For comparison it’s worth noting that the X Factor Final typically sees 1 in 4 of the public voting for their choice. The recent European elections saw just 1 in 3 UK adults voting – a similar level to that achieved in recent local government elections. Turnout is much higher at the General Election, but in the last decade only 60-65% of adults have bothered to vote even at this level, compared to say the 1950s when up to 85% would vote. The two most popular UK politicians are Nigel Farrage (who is anti the political elite) and Boris Johnson (who looks like the elite, but is directly elected as Mayor of London). We should look for clues in their popularity.
However, these issues of alienation run deeper than politicians would like to believe. It’s not just nihilistic cynicism, recession fatigue or unpleasant racism – although there are elements of all of those. It seems that people are concluding that, for all the promise of democracy, ordinary people appear to have little or no impact on their Governments. We now know this is true – at least in the US, for which we have data. Earlier this year, Professor Martin Gilens of Princeton University published very powerful research which showed that “ordinary citizens have almost no influence over what their government does in the United States”. Gilens had looked at the history of almost 2,000 policy decisions over a 20 year period. He found that the economic elite ( corporations, business and the richest 10% of people) got their way two-thirds of the time, twice as often as the median citizen and sixty times more often than the bottom 10%. This mattered most when people at the top and the middle disagreed – e.g. over tax levels and the regulation of business. Guess what? The people in the middle tend to lose the argument. Even when there was 80% or greater support in the country for a particular policy change, the change mostly didn’t happen. That was because policy debates were heavily influenced by interest groups. Interest groups were dominated by the economic elite (e.g. business and professional associations). In the US, the preferences of business interest groups negatively correlated with the majority preferences of the US public. Business interest groups were twice as influential as mass interest groups – mainly because they were twice as active. And interest groups (the research shows) were mostly against change. The elite preferred things as they are – by definition, it seemed to work for them! So the lack of majority power and a status quo bias meant that even when large majorities wanted change, they often didn’t get it, unless the economic elite wanted it too. I haven’t seen similar research for the UK, but I suspect it would make uncomfortable reading for most politicians, probably with the exception of Nigel Farrage, who might suddenly have an evidence base for his anti-elitist rhetoric.

So, if these are deep problems, what could be done? The political class needs to have a radical think about constitutional reform. Now, I have catholic tastes in my existing friendships across the political class. Some are passionate about equality, others about free enterprise; some have invested their lives in global development, others in parochial pavement politics. But I must admit I have always crossed the road to avoid constitutional reformers – those whose lives are devoted to voting systems and political structures. The constitutionalists always remind me of those hi-fi buffs who obsess over expensive and obscure woofers and tweeters, but then turn out to like nothing more than Simon and Garfunkel or Celine Dion! Like many, I have rather lazily assumed that the British don’t really go for constitutional change. Like many, I have a vague sense that our constitution has organically grown over centuries to give us a stable, if occasionally eccentric, system. But, of course, much of this history is pretty recent. A hundred years ago on the eve of the First World War, 16 out of 20 people didn’t even have a vote. The last thirty years have in fact been a period of hyper-active, if completely incoherent, constitutional reform. We have had: devolution to Scotland and Wales; self-government in Northern Ireland; proportional representation in local government in Scotland and London; the abolition of metropolitan government in our major cities; the creation of Select Committees; and, the widespread elimination of county government. In just the last couple of years, we’ve had referenda on an Alternative Voting System and Elected City Mayors, along with another intense, but failed battle to reform the House of Lords. This year we have a referendum on Scotland leaving the UK and within 3 years we’re likely to be voting on whether to remain in the European Union. So clearly the British do do constitutional reform! However, it’s all one sort of democracy. Whether it’s devolved, national or international, our ability to influence things comes (for most people and most types of voting) through parliamentary style representation. By and large, our democracy is representative – we choose someone to represent us in a council, a national parliament or an international parliament and then they go on to join-up with others and choose their leaders, who in turn become our leaders. So, we have, mostly, an indirect democracy. And where we don’t have proportional representation, then the first past the post system means that voters in safe seats have little individual influence on the national system. My eldest (and politically active) daughter who gets her first General Election vote in 2015 has realised that living in the Henley-on-Thames constituency removes her right to have any impact on whether Ed Miliband becomes Prime Minister. But even if she had a way to help him into office, he could easily be replaced by his party colleagues without reference back to the electorate. Given the limitations of the national voting system, what about all the other votes that express the people’s will? Everyone has at least 3 votes – local, UK and European. Some have 4 (e.g. in Scotland or London) or even 5 votes (e.g. in shire county areas, with county, district and parish). But with the exception of the devolved administrations (like Scotland or London), the other votes (local government and European) too often tend to be poorly attended protest votes against the national government of the day, rather than real votes about local or European issues. I have mixed feelings about my inability to name the leaders of either the county or district council leaders where I live. On the one hand, it’s embarrassing as I take much more interest in politics and government than most. On the other, it’s reassuring that I am part of the 92% majority of people who can’t name their council leaders. The majority of people with an Elected Mayor do know who runs their area – i.e. they have a direct democracy. ( Given my political anorak habits, I can actually name many of the Elected Mayors up and down the country!)

If we are to re-engage the public, we need to offer some radical solutions. In order to stimulate this debate, here are 4 straw men. I am not arguing for them, just arguing that we need to start arguing:

1) Public Juries

A first step could be to give ordinary people a chance to take part in government. There are many decisions which politicians have decided to give away to independent panels, experts and committees. There are national structures (e.g. Low Pay Commission to decide on the Minimum Wage level) and local structures (e.g.panels to decide on the adoption of children). These processes are typically populated by the great, the good and the worthy – the elite. One way to reinvigorate democracy would be to abolish this remote and elitist approach and replace it with “Public Juries”. Members of the public would chosen to serve on these juries, based on a representative demographic sample. Those chosen would be obliged to serve, just as they are obliged to do jury duty in the legal system. There would be a judicial style process chaired by an impartial public servant and the jury would hear arguments from a variety of sources before making a decision. This is not about consultation – it is about replacing the “quango-cracy” or “magistracy” with other decision-making bodies. The jury decision would have the same status as the decisions made by the body which the jury had replaced – i.e. it might be the final decision, or the formal recommendation to Ministers. Bodies which could be replaced by this approach include: determination of the National Minimum Wage level by the Low Pay Commission; the setting of interest rates by the Monetary Policy Committee; decisions by NICE on which treatments should be funded by the NHS; recommendations by the Migration Advisory Committee on immigration levels; recommendations by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs; recommendations by the Honours Committees on who should get knighthoods and medals; local decisions by Licensing Panels about the sale of alcohol or the numbers of taxis; decisions by economic regulators about consumer prices versus investment in particular regulated industries, such as water; etc. In addition, this approach could be used for a wide range of difficult decisions taken by Ministers, where it is tempting for Ministers to avoid hard choices, e.g. local health service rationalisation plans. Juries might also replace various appeals processes (e.g. for planning applications or immigration). And public juries would offer a better solution than peer review for judging the behaviour of politicians themselves (e.g. on expenses issues). Some of the juries might be small (e.g. for an adoption) or large enough to be nationally representative (e.g. on the Minimum Wage). But (I hear some people say) how can the ignorant masses decide on these highly expert and sensitive topics? Well, the jury approach (trial by one’s peers) works well in our justice system. And most of these decisions are about justice, making trade-off decisions and giving each side a fair hearing. I am envisaging that, as in a trial, there is a moderated opportunity to hear both sides of a case before making a decision. Where Public Juries have been used ( in diverse locations from China to Texas, and on diverse topics from health reorganisation to clean energy) the public changed their minds substantially as they heard the evidence and engaged in the debate. In these debates, it is the role of experts to make their arguments and it is for the people to make the decisions. Participative democracy like this could re-engage the public. It would be possible to allow the public to follow the case (online or on TV). If future decisions are well publicised, there could be a big build up in the public domain, e.g. social media campaigns. And if all this sounds a bit exotic, it’s worth remembering that this was the form of democracy favoured by Aristotle. The Kleroterion was a Greek lottery machine which randomly selected citizens to join a Council to govern Athens. The idea was to avoid the oligarchy of a political elite. It seems unlikely that Nigel Farrage will mention Aristotle (unlike perhaps Boris Johnson) but they seem to be on the same lines.

2) Directly elected European President

A second step might be in Europe. Even the most passionate Europhiles must despair about the democratic mess which is the European Union. There are European elections. But they are for the bit of the European government which has the least power – its Parliament. Day to day power rests with the European Commission which is run by ex-politicians, who are are appointed through the patronage of individual national governments. The big decisions sit with the Council of Ministers, the 28 heads of government who horse-trade their way to compromises which leave none of them satisfied, and none of them feeling accountable to the public. (I gave up trying to explain all this to my newly-voting daughter, who concluded that a UK vote was just about who should get a domestic bloody nose from the voters.) Let’s assume for a minute that we’re staying in the European Union. Let’s also assume that the Council of Ministers reach a fresh agreement on what scope and powers the EU should have (e.g. its role in agriculture or immigration). With these settled, we could then replace the Parliament and the Commission with a directly-elected President. The European public (not the dining rooms of Brussels) would choose their President, using a similar voting system to the French Presidential elections, but with elections held every 3 years. The President would then choose his or her own Commissioners. The Council of Ministers could change the scope or powers of the President and would set the overall budget. But after that, the President would be directly accountable only to the people. He or she would have the option to hold electronic referenda on big issues, or to appoint Public Juries. Assuming that the EU continues, there are huge and urgent Europe-wide economic issues on which to engage the European public (via direct election, referenda or juries) if Europe is to thrive in the new global economy. At the moment, there is a lack of the strong political leadership needed to help the European public understand and accept the challenges they have to face. It is better to decide cleanly what, if anything, we want decided at the European level and then create a directly-elected representative to wield that power (be it broadly or narrowly defined) in a strong and highly accountable way.

3) Directly elected Presidents for the UK nations

A third step might be to have directly elected Presidents for each of the 4 UK nations (Scotland, NI, Wales and the UK). In effect, this makes a formality of what is actually going on in elections. It’s clear, for example, that, in spite of the personal merits of local Members of Parliament, the 2015 General Election will boil down to whether the public wants “President” Cameron, Miliband, Clegg or Farrage. So why not let people elect them directly and then let the successful candidate choose who is in their government (as Obama does in the US)? If nothing else, it would allow people to have a national vote for a national government, where every vote counted, and it would require the winner to have the support of the majority of the electorate. Two features our Westminster system lacks. But how do we avoid the problem that directly elected Presidents are often blocked by other branches of Government? As we know, the US constitution was inspired by the Jeffersonian principle of giving government the least amount of power and then spreading this power across the greatest number of bodies. In the US (and elsewhere) we know this leaves gridlock and a public confused about who is in power and who is accountable to them for what. But if Presidents could stay highly accountable to the public, then would we even need the other branches of government – the lower chambers who legislate and the upper chambers who refine the work of the lower chambers? Instead, could we not replace these others branches with direct input from the public? For example, maybe big annual decisions (such as the Budget) or major primary legislation should be subject to a public online referendum. It ought to easy to make online voting easy, secure and, if necessary, frequent. It is no longer the case that communities which are days away from their capital need to send representatives to follow events and vote on issues. Modern media brings government and the people together in real time. In terms of shaping and debating legislation, maybe Presidents would be obliged to put all new draft legislation out to pre-legislative scrutiny. The power of the elected executive would be moderated by the people, in real time, rather than by other elected representatives, competing for legitimacy. (It’s entirely feasible that a ceremonial monarchy continues in this scenario, if that’s what the public wants).

4) Russian doll Mayors

Elected Mayors are a good thing. Like the Presidential model, having Mayors gives the public a direct vote for who they want to run the area and requires the winning candidate to secure a majority of the electorate. The challenge is that we need Mayors at different levels. On the one hand, there is a serious lack of big, strategic Metro Mayors for our larger conurbations. We have one in Boris. Should we have more? This could be for each of our biggest city regions (e.g. Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, etc). But we also need them at a very local level. In other countries, e.g. France and the US, there are mayors for very local areas, including the 37,000 communes of France and many of the 20,000 US municipalities. Just as in London, we have a Mayor for Hackney and a Mayor for London as a whole, fans of Danish TV drama will know that in Copenhagen local areas elect a Borgmester for their neighbourhood and an Overborgmester for the City as a whole. We could see these as Russian doll Mayors – we could have as many as we liked, with each smaller geography siting inside a large one. However, I suspect that for most people 2 would be fine. Again, rather than having lots of councillors to limit the power of Mayors, their executive heft could be moderated by direct public participation in online referenda or public juries on major decisions.

These are just a few ideas for reforming our political structures. There are many other, and probably better, ones that we should we considering. Indeed, there are other ideas elsewhere on my blog (e.g. hypothecating taxes, for example for the NHS) which could make a real difference. The straw man ideas in this post are about trying to move away from the indirect democracy which offers the public infrequent opportunities to express a view about who they delegate to represent them in a rather complicated, distant gathering of the political elite. Instead, these ideas aim to stimulate a debate about giving ordinary people more opportunities to directly express their opinions, to directly choose their leaders and to delegate their decisions to their peers for complex decisions best suited to a jury. If such ideas worked, they might reconnect government and ordinary people and reignite the political battle of ideas about what kind of future we want to pursue.

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