28 February 2006

Power to the People!

The Power Commission's Report published yesterday (funded by Joseph Rowntree Trust - the Quakers are great despite their belief in God) is surely the answer to all our liberty and democracy prayers (maybe even enough for the new Liberty Central evangelists).

I must admit I have not read all of the 175 page report as of yet, but the main proposals are excellent and get my full blessing. More importantly Gordon Brown has shown his interest in electoral reform and devolving power, even going as far as addressing the launch of this report and it's subsequent conference on March 25th. Of course the real test will be in what he actually proposes enacting. One can hope.

There are plenty of reasons for disliking Gordon Brown and I have made no secret that I don't want him to become leader, but if he backs the important proposals in this report on electoral reform and subsidiarity, then I would change my mind about this.

I notice the right wing press have done their best to ignore this report. The Daily Mail gave a dismissive report on page 7. The other popular tabloids printed nothing about it (apart from a paragraph on page 5 of the Mirror), this was despite Gordon Brown's high profile backing and a number of potentially eyecatching headlines including votes at 16 (the tabloids are interested in everything else about 16 year olds). Compare this to the front page headlines given by both the Guardian and Independent. This is not surprising, the right wing press are scared to death by this report. The last thing they want to see, is more power and resources given to the public.

I think most of us would welcome more power and resources being devolved to individuals and local communities. Important as electoral reform is, it is clear that we also need more devolved power away from the executive and more equity in party funding currently so reliant on big business and wealthy individuals, this report addresses all of these concerns.

It is going to be difficlut for this government to devolve power away from the executive and towards parliament and local government. They have after all continued the massive centralisation of power that was largely started by Thatcher. But I am given hope by Gordon Brown's backing for the report. David Cameron, for all his rhetoric and repositioning of his image, has shown his true colours by completely ignoring this report. Like the right wing press, the Tories are scared to death of the plebs getting any real power.

While I admire Cameron for his brave admissions that he would like to see drugs legalised (although he has not surprisingly backtracked on this), that he took an AIDS test, that his kids had MMR jabs, and that his Tory party is less scary and more credible (in image) than one led by David Davies would have been, I still recognise he is a fraud. It is this fraudalent image that is really scary, because it could fool the electorate. Although Cameron copies Blair's image and triangulation of party image, he is no match for Blair's political genius and certainly no Blair in terms of substance - Blair actually changed Labour policies. He is a pale imitation of Blair, and the public have no appetite for 'another Blair' anyway.

Anyway, I digress, back to the Power Commision. Here are the main findings of the report;

"Disengagement is NOT caused by:
• an apathetic and uninterested public with a weak sense of civic
• a widespread economic and political contentment;
• the supposedly low calibre and probity of politicians;
• the lack of competitive elections (this may have a minor
impact on election turnout but it needs to be set in the wider
context of an electoral system which is widely perceived to lead
to unequal and wasted votes);
• an overly negative news media;
• lack of time on the part of citizens."

I would have thought the negative press would have made some difference, but essentially I agree with all of this.

"Power concluded that the following explanations stood up in
the face of the evidence:
• citizens do not feel that the processes of formal democracy
offer them enough influence over political decisions – this
includes party members who feel they have no say in policy-
making and are increasingly disaffected;
• the main political parties are widely perceived to be too similar
and lacking in principle;
• the electoral system is widely perceived as leading to unequal
and wasted votes;
• political parties and elections require citizens to commit to too
broad a range of policies;
• many people feel they lack information or knowledge about
formal politics;
• voting procedures are regarded by some as inconvenient and

The main points for me are 'lack of influence' caused by power being too centralised and the electoral system limiting realistic choice.

"the parties have adapted their policies and
campaigning simply to win elections. The political strategy of “trian-
gulation”, for example, is democracy by numbers. It is a mathemati-
cal equation that secures power but in the end drives down people’s
desire to be politically engaged. It hollows out democracy because it
inevitably means by-passing party members who want debate and ne-
glects the democratic channels of engagement which might get in the
way of the strategy."

Triangulation is mainly a result of 'first past the post' which forces parties to focus on only the already popular point of view (shaped largely by the press which is owned by a few rich men who dictate their rightwing editorial policy) and ignore any controversial viewpoint. Proportional representation allows parties to embrace views right across the whole political spectrum and argue for them, allowing good ideas more space and time to grow. This is much better for inclusiveness and democratic debate.

"The recommendations are based on three major shifts in political
• a rebalancing of power away from the Executive and
unaccountable bodies towards Parliament and local
• the introduction of greater responsiveness and choice into the
electoral and party systems;
• allowing citizens a much more direct and focused say over
political decisions and policies.
These three imperatives stand or fall alongside each other. The
implementation of only one or two of the three will not create the re-
engagement with formal democracy which many people now want."

This is spot on and I think should appeal across the political spectrum amongst party members and members of the public, if not some politicians!

1. A Concordat should be drawn up between Executive and Par-
liament indicating where key powers lie and providing significant
powers of scrutiny and initiation for Parliament.
2. Select Committees should be given independence and en-
hanced powers including the power to scrutinise and veto key govern-
ment appointments and to subpoena witnesses to appear and testify
before them. This should include proper resourcing so that commit-
tees can fulfil their remit effectively. The specialist committees in the
Upper House should have the power to co-opt people from outside the
legislature who have singular expertise, such as specialist scientists,
when considering complex areas of legislation or policy.
3. Limits should be placed on the power of the whips.
4. Parliament should have greater powers to initiate legislation,
to launch public inquiries and to act on public petitions.
5. 70 per cent of the members of the House of Lords should be
elected by a ‘responsive electoral system’ (see 12 below) – and not on
a closed party list system – for three parliamentary terms. To ensure that this part of the legislature is not comprised of career politicians
with no experience outside politics, candidates should be at least 40
years of age.
6. There should be an unambiguous process of decentralisation
of powers from central to local government.
7. A Concordat should be drawn up between central and local
government setting out their respective powers.
8. Local government should have enhanced powers to raise
taxes and administer its own finances.
9. The Government should commission an independent map-
ping of quangos and other public bodies to clarify and renew lines of
accountability between elected and unelected authority.
10. Ministerial meetings with representatives of business in-
cluding lobbyists should be logged and listed on a monthly basis.
11. A new overarching select committee should be established
to scrutinise the Executive’s activities in supranational bodies and
multilateral negotiations, particularly in relation to the European Un-
ion, and to ensure these activities are held to account and conducted
in the best interests of the British people.
12. A responsive electoral system – which offers voters a greater
choice and diversity of parties and candidates – should be intro-
duced for elections to the House of Commons, House of Lords and
local councils in England and Wales to replace the fi rst-past-the-post
13. The closed party list system should have no place in modern
14. The system whereby candidates have to pay a deposit which
is lost if their votes fall below a certain threshold should be replaced
with a system where the candidate has to collect the signatures of a set
number of supporters in order to appear on the ballot paper.
15. The Electoral Commission should take a more active role in
promoting candidacy so that more women, people from black and mi-
nority ethnic communities, people on lower incomes, young people
and independents are encouraged to stand.
16. The voting and candidacy age should be reduced to sixteen
(with the exception of candidacy for the House of Lords).
17. Automatic, individual voter registration at age sixteen
should be introduced. This can be done in tandem with the allocation
of National Insurance numbers.
18. The citizenship curriculum should be shorter, more practi-
cal and result in a qualifi cation.
19. Donations from individuals to parties should be capped at
£10,000, and organisational donations capped at £100 per member,
subject to full democratic scrutiny within the organisation.
20. State funding to support local activity by political parties
should be introduced based on the allocation of individual voter
vouchers. This would mean that at a general election a voter will be
able to tick a box allocating a £3 donation per year from public funds
to a party of his or her choice to be used by that party for local activity.
It would be open to the voter to make the donation to a party other
than the one they have just voted for.
21. Text voting or email voting should only be considered fol-
lowing other reform of our democratic arrangements.
22. The realignment of constituency boundaries should be ac-
23. All public bodies should be required to meet a duty of public
involvement in their decision and policy-making processes.
24. Citizens should be given the right to initiate legislative proc-
esses, public inquiries and hearings into public bodies and their sen-
ior management.
25. The rules on the plurality of media ownership should be re-
formed. This is always a controversial issue but there should be spe-
cial consideration given to this issue in light of the developments in
digital broadcast and the internet.
26. A requirement should be introduced that public service
broadcasters develop strategies to involve viewers in deliberation on
matters of public importance – this would be aided by the use of dig-
ital technology.
27. MPs should be required and resourced to produce annual
reports, hold AGMs and make more use of innovative engagement
28. Ministerial meetings with campaign groups and their repre-
sentatives should be logged and listed on a monthly basis.
29. A new independent National Statistical and Information
Service should be created to provide the public with key information
free of political spin.
30. ‘Democracy hubs’ should be established in each local au-
thority area. These would be resource centres based in the community
where people can access information and advice to navigate their way
through the democratic system."

I support all of this, the ideas on the House on Lords are arbitrary, but I can understand their reasoning and it is a minor quibble. They also hint at their support for the Single Transferable Vote (STV). Either this or an open list PR system would be good. I prefer the open list system proposed by Hansard in 1976, but STV is very good as well.

For those who argue that 16 year olds are too young to vote and that this change would make little difference to turnout. I would remind them that this is a minimum age, the majority would still have to wait till 18 or later to vote in a general election. For example I was too young to vote in 1987 by a few months, I had to wait until I was almost 23 before I could vote in a general election. This has a massive impact on those who have to wait this long, for instance..."In the 2001 election, for example, turnout among 27-year-olds was 49%, compared with 65% among 28-year-olds who had been old enough to vote in the 1992 election."

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