May You Live In Interesting Times!
For many people the highlight of the last few weeks of politicking in the UK was this intervention by the now famous “Brenda from Bristol”.
Well, this morning it seems that Brenda’s worst fears are about to be realised. There is going to be a lot more politics in the next few months and it is likely that we’ll end up with another election within a year. Oh joy, oh rapture! We live in interesting times – and according to legend, that’s a Chinese curse!
I’m not a party-political animal, I have no loyalty to one side of the political divide or the other. I actually (call me naive) believe that the majority of people who stand for election on whatever side of the fence do so for the best of motives – if they wanted to dominate people and make lots of money, they’d go into banking. However, I do not believe that this election has delivered the government that we need, nor will the next one. My issue is not which party wins the most seats; my problem is with the system as a whole.
The first problem is that our first past the post electoral system has flaws. I appreciate that it creates a link between the constituency and the MP and there are real strengths in that. However, it does mean that there is very little correlation between the way the population as a whole votes and the representation in Westminster. Famously after the 2015 election, the SNP and UKIP received a similar percentage of the overall vote, but had wildly different numbers of MPs. However, I believe that our problems lie deeper than this. The first past the post system is wired to produce a two party parliament which is a major problem and the reason why we are unlikely to change it.
Simplistically, the way that our system is supposed to work is adversarial. The government proposes things and the opposition challenges them. Through a process of dialogue and argument, the government’s suggestions are refined and improved until they are eventually voted through and become law. This is effectively the way that our courts work, too. This sort of adversarial dialogue is a powerful way of getting to the heart of the issue and at its best, the committee system in parliament works this way. However, it only works if people are seeking after the common good, it doesn’t work at all when people go into the dialogue aiming to win.
British politics is all about winning short term victories. This is revealed in many little ways.
The weekly bear pit of Prime Minister’s question time is a disgrace (and has been so under successive Prime Ministers). The ostensible purpose is to give parliament the opportunity to hold the government to account, but it all boils down to who wins on the day. The MPs don’t ask real questions and the Prime Minster doesn’t give real answers. The atmosphere is aggressive and reminiscent of a school play ground with two opposing gangs of eight year olds shouting at each other. I’ll come back to the atmosphere in a moment.
We aren’t helped in this by the broadcast media. Much of the Radio 4 Today programme is predicated on an adversarial approach. Interviewers do their best to discomfit the politicians who in turn try hard not to reveal anything importance – it’s all about who wins. Sometimes they will bring together two people of widely opposing views to ‘discuss’ an issue, but what actually happens is that they have an argument on the air, no sensible conclusion is reached and the milk on my muesli gets curdled by the venom emerging from the radio. There are rare occasions when things go wrong; generally when two old politicians from the House of Lords are asked to discuss something. Released from the tyranny of trying to win, they actually have a good discussion and move the debate forward, much to the frustration of the interviewer who wants them to fight!
I don’t even need to look at the way that the newspapers and social media promote an antagonistic approach to politics.
The lay out of our houses of parliament does not help. The parties face each other across the house like adversaries in a game of chess or a tennis match. It’s an arena for combat, for argument, for winning. I think the symbolism is massively important. If you look at almost any modern parliamentary building the representatives sit facing the same direction. They still sit in party groups, but the seating says that they are working together to face the same problems; Westminster says that we are facing off to beat each other up.
There are two significant problems of this arguing to win approach to our politics. The first is that produces bad decisions. In a sensible system, ideas would be exposed to challenge and discussion and they would be refined and adapted in the face of new evidence. If the situation changes or new evidence emerges and you decide to do something different to what you originally said, that’s good sense. However, in our political system any change is leapt upon as a U-turn and a sign of weakness. So Governments plough on with bad choices in the face of all good sense.
The second and perhaps bigger problem is that a focus on short-term wins means that politicians and the media focus on small issues and when big, uncomfortable issues are faced, they are reduced to simple sound bites. In the last ten years, both Labour and the Conservatives have tried to get to grips with the question of long-term care for the elderly. Given the demographics of the UK, this is an issue which needs to be faced in one way or another, but the solutions proposed were dismissed in one case as a “death tax” and in the other as a “dementia tax”. We can’t afford posturing like this, we need to see people working together (and yes, I know that the Brown government did try to get cross-party support on this issue – well done them). The short-term focus also means that governments have to be seen to-do-something. Each incoming government feels a need to make their mark by tweaking the national institutions, be that health care or education – while doctors and teacher struggle to catch up with the changes that the last lot made. Meanwhile, the big issues, such as the UK falling behind in international league tables for educational achievement or the massive problem that the NHS will face as the population ages are not being seriously addressed. We have lots of short-term wins, but we are sleep walking into big problems.
To steal a phrase form somewhere or other, we need strong and stable government and that means a government which listens, learns and takes in advice from across the spectrum. Coalitions work well in other countries, but because of the antagonistic approach of our parties, media and voters we don’t seem to be able to get the best out of them here.
I want to see a change to some sort of proportional representation that will bring more parties into parliament and which will force governments to work together with others. However, unless we address some of the deeper underlying issues, I’m not convinced that PR will achieve what is needed. While we are on, the Houses of Commons are in need of repair, let’s take the opportunity to build a modern, parliament which encourages working together rather than shouting at each other (and let’s move it outside of London – but that’s another story). Sadly, I don’t think that we will see the changes that we need in my lifetime and I am concerned that the increased polarisation that our system encourages and which is enflamed by social media may prove fatal to British democracy within a generation or two.
Just a thought about the role of Christians in all this. The Gospel is a call to reconciliation; in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, nor Tory nor Labour. We of all people should be able to reach across the boundaries of our political convictions to both challenge and learn from others. It is far too easy to get drawn into the party political slanging matches (I apologise that I do from time to time). We (and by that, I mean “I”) have to work harder at promoting discussion which draws in all opinions and which is not satisfied with the easy sound bites of adversarial politics.
Just a couple of thoughts in closing. Reading back, there are lots of holes in this piece, but it is already much longer than my normal blog posts, so I’m leaving it as is – please feel free to tell me what I haven’t put in, I probably agree with you.
I am not convinced that I have the solutions to the problems we face. However, I am convinced that British democracy as it stands is pretty sick and that the solution (whatever it is) does not lie in partisan politics. If you want to tell us how evil the Tories are or how incompetent Labour is (or any variation on the above), please go somewhere else. There are plenty of outlets for that sort of discussion. If you have any thoughts on how to look beyond the surface issues and to get to grips with underlying problems, I’d love to hear them.