21 May 2009

Seamus Milne on the political crisis

Purge the professionals and let party democracy breathe

This meltdown creates opportunities as well as dangers. But more than technocratic fixes, we need real political choice

Seumas Milne guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 20 May 2009 21.30

What started as a political scandal has tipped over into a full-blown ­crisis of Britain's entire political system. There's no doubt that the Commons Speaker's resignation was long overdue. But if MPs imagine that by scapegoating Michael Martin for their own scams they will appease popular ­revulsion, they are dreaming. The drip-drip revelations of help-yourself entitlement have only entrenched a gulf between the political elite and the public that's been widening for two decades: the product of narrowing political choice, professionalisation of politics, shameless government ­deceit about war and peace, and devastating financial collapse.

Now both Britain's governing and business classes are discredited. And what the Daily Telegraph, orchestrator of the expenses leaks, yesterday called "a very British revolution" is going to have to go a good deal further than a change of guard in a largely ceremonial post of fake feudal flummery to steady the horses. Gordon Brown seems at last dimly to perceive what has to be done. For a fortnight he has lagged one step behind David Cameron in response to the exposures: whether over apologies, sanctions on MPs or demands for repayment. On Tuesday he was given a "kicking like he's never had before" by Labour's national executive over his failure to act, as one member put it.

Now he has moved to suspend some of the worst offenders, pushed ahead plans to end parliamentary self-regulation, set up his own "star chamber" to investigate his errant parliamentarians, and declared that "many" MPs will have to stand down as a result. But the public doesn't want apologies, cheques or promises of further inquiries – it wants heads on a platter without further delay. That's why the only way to restore some confidence in Labour MPs – the most damaged by the scandal – is to drive through a sweeping round of reselections by local parties.

To avoid the kind of stitch-ups by regional officials which have packed parliament with New Labour clones, the normal procedures would have to be opened up. But putting all but the most blameless MPs through a process of reselection would offer the chance both to revive local democracy and replace some Tweedledum career politicians with more independent, rooted and working-class candidates.

It should also put the Tories on the back foot. Cameron would feel obliged to follow suit – and risk not only losing close allies in the process, but also a backlash from local Conservative associations, who have made it clear they have no appetite whatever for deselecting MPs, however outrageous their second-home arrangements. But Brown is still balking at sacking his communities secretary Hazel Blears for her expenses profiteering, letting it be known he has "full confidence" in her while at the same time describing her behaviour as "totally unacceptable".

A purge of miscreants, however, is clearly not enough. What has become a crisis of democracy can only be overcome with a programme of democratic reform. Both Brownite and Blairite members of the cabinet are now talking about launching a constitutional convention to reshape the whole political structure, covering everything from an elected Lords and independent select committees to electoral reform and an overhaul of party funding.

Anything that cracks open the system and dispenses with perennial British complacency about the "mother of parliaments" has got to be welcome. But technocratic fixes won't by themselves solve the problem. Unless parliamentary democracy is about choice, it's meaningless. The legacy of New Labour is a contest over the narrowest of political and economic options, presided over by highly centralised party machines, where internal democracy has withered and party members have drifted away.

There is no reason why any of the reforms being discussed would automatically overcome that dismal inheritance. Unless new parties are able to break the existing political monopoly – a mountain to climb under first-past-the-post even in current circumstances – that would require an end to authoritarian party control, space for internal pluralism, and the local right to choose election candidates freely.

For Labour in particular, such an upheaval would mean a reconstitution of the party. But without a profound change in the kind of people who are chosen as MPs and a reconnection between electors and elected, underpinned by a right of recall, this crisis of representation will not be overcome.

Nor is there any reason to think that calling an early general election – as now demanded by Tories and Liberal Democrats – would lance the boil. Until the parties have themselves cleared out their more sleazy incumbents, the most likely outcome would be a string of corruption referendums, rather than contests over programmes and policies, with a proliferation of celebrity and clean-hands candidates delivering a Tory landslide on a historically low share of the vote.

The political crisis ­triggered by the Commons expenses scandal is itself linked to the economic crisis that preceded it. Both are the product of an economic model that brooked no alternative, was built on greed and drove people to see themselves as ­consumers rather than citizens. And just as in the case of the economic crash, the constitutional meltdown creates opportunities as well as dangers for progressive and radical politics.

By bringing to a head long-running alienation from mainstream politics at a time when the economic system is seen to have failed, the crisis offers a chance to bust the cosy political cartels that have underpinned it, and create new alliances for a real change of direction. Everything is potentially in play, including the survival of the parties in their current form. If Brown were able to seize the moment, the government could shape the direction of reform.

But there is also a risk that disgust at the antics of the political class can feed a reactionary mood that rejects the idea that politics can improve people's lives and embraces the call for a small state at a time of retrenchment. Not surprisingly, the atmosphere in Downing Street is febrile. As one close ally of the prime minister told me yesterday: "There is a dangerous void. If the governing elite doesn't grab the opportunity, the people will overthrow them."

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