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Building a better politics

Angela Eagle

There are key turning points in our history, moments when it was not just our government that was shifting, but the foundations of our politics as well. One of those turning points was in 1945. Britain went into the Second World War governing an Empire that ruled half the world. We emerged - victorious over fascism - but heavily indebted. It is a matter of great pride for us as a country that our reaction to economic turmoil was to create the NHS and fight to eradicate what Beveridge called the five giants: want, disease, ignorance, idleness and squalor. We also balanced the budget. The post-war settlement was born of that challenge. At a moment of crisis, Britain fundamentally changed for the better.

Another turning point was the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, which ended the post-war consensus. With her close ally Ronald Reagan, she ensured that market fundamentalism became our dominant ideology. The politics of the welfare state - of the compassionate state - was replaced by the triumph of free market individualism. The political consensus created then still has an impact today, thirty years later.

Politicians are fond of turning points. They are useful props. They are also much easier to spot in retrospect. But my contention is that we are now at a turning point of our own.

The global banking crisis of 2008 and the depression which followed it have combined with a crisis in our politics to create a volatile and dangerous moment. People are struggling and they do not see the government responding to their plight. We've lost confidence in an economic system that once delivered rising prosperity, but now delivers increasing inequality and insecurity.

Instead of politics responding to the crisis, this government has used it to pursue their ideological vision of a minimalist state where people in trouble sink or swim. Their 'cut and hope for the best' approach has not just undermined our prospects of economic recovery, it has also suggested to people that politics is powerless in the face of the demands of the markets. And what have we seen? A crisis of trust across all of our major institutions: parliament, police, the press - and an on-going decline in political engagement. People are hurting but no longer believe that politics is the answer to their problems. If we are not careful that will be the epitaph of our time - that people stopped believing that politics could change their lives for the better.

We've not just got a flat-lining economy, but a flat-lining democracy too. Thatcherism told a generation that they were in it for themselves; that the 'I' was more important than the 'we'. The reach of markets extended to the heart of our communities. Everything became a commodity to be bought and sold. Anything that didn't have a price was regarded as worthless. Commercial exchange was elevated over social interaction. We learned the price of everything and the value of nothing.

The UK became established as a consumer society with a culture which means that people today think that politics is a service they can chose to buy into or not. They do not regard it as a joint endeavour. It is as if they have been told that they should watch as passive spectators in the stands, and even the audience in the stands is dwindling.

In 1945, experience of war put a premium on working together in a common cause. Wartime spirit meant that everyone felt like a member of the team, they looked out for each other and believed that as a country they could do anything. In the words of the famous wartime poster, we would 'go forward together'.

Today our governing structures are clearly not delivering, but some are clinging on to the failed Thatcherite politics and economics of the 1980s. On the right they argue that we aren't being Thatcherite enough, but it was their economic model which crashed so spectacularly in 2008. We are at a point of change, and it is now up to us to meet the challenge of this new transition.

Labour's promise of a One Nation Britain is a promise that together we will build an economy, a society, and a new politics for the many and not the few. I am clear that we cannot achieve that vision, where everyone feels that they have a stake, unless we face up to the crisis in our politics as well as our economics. Unless people feel an ownership of their politics, how will they feel ownership in the policies of their government?

The People's Politics Inquiry

That is why I have commenced a major new inquiry that will explore the problems at the heart of our politics. The 'People's Politics Inquiry' is not an ordinary inquiry. It isn't made up of the great and the good. It is made up of disillusioned voters from across the UK who will join us for a conversation about how we can build a better politics.

A national inquiry panel made up of these voters will suggest to us how they think we should reform. They will also explore the outcomes of conversations with the public across the UK, and from a process of online submission where everyone interested in political reform can have their say.

Too often we approach the problem of political reform from the perspective of the political practitioner. But I think that in order to understand why people are disengaged, we should start by talking to the people who are disengaged.

This Inquiry is a clear statement of intent from the Labour Party. We are committed to answering the big questions at the heart of our politics. We want to build a politics where everyone has a say and where everyone believes that politics is there to serve them. I hope that the Inquiry will be a breath of fresh air for a debate on political reform that is too often about political point scoring and top down legislative change.

The Inquiry will explore three areas: our political culture, democratic engagement, and how we can reconnect people with parliament. I don't seek to provide the answers just yet - I don't want to pre-empt the Inquiry - but I hope my thoughts will be taken as the beginning of a debate which is long overdue.

Political culture

I want to start by looking at our political culture today. Cultural questions are always hard to answer, but we have to talk about them if we are to build a better politics. So what do I mean by 'political culture'? I mean all of the implicit assumptions which lie behind our political discourse. I think this can be encompassed in three phrases: 'You're all the same', 'Nothing ever changes', and 'You're all in it for yourselves'.

The greatest privilege for an MP, and the biggest strength of our political system, is the opportunity members have to ground themselves in their constituencies, and to talk to voters. At its best the constituency link ensures that it is the conversations on doorsteps that inform the conversations in the corridors of our Parliament and in Whitehall too.

When I knock on doors, I ask a simple question: is there anything I can help you with? The initial surprise is always followed with something. My neighbour got burgled - I'm worried about crime. My kid is getting bullied - I'm worried about the local school. The extra I'm paying for the bedroom tax - I just can't afford it.

And when I follow it up with asking who they are going to vote for - I am a politician after all - they often say 'I'm just not political' or 'it doesn't make any difference, you're all the same'.

When I first got interested in politics as a young teenager growing up in the 1970s I didn't think this way. I had a father in the print trade and a dressmaker mum who told me all the family stories about the lack of opportunities for working class people growing up in Sheffield. I thought these brakes on opportunity needed to change.

I wanted to help bring about that change, so I joined the Labour Party. It never occurred to me then that politicians 'were all the same' and that in the words of that well known anarchist slogan: 'if voting changed anything they'd abolish it'. David Cameron tells us we are all Thatcherites now, but on the basis of this, I think it might be more realistic to say that we are all anarchists now!

It is not just on the doorstep in Wallasey that I hear the phrase 'I'm not interested in politics' - I hear it everywhere. Paulo Di Canio, the new manager of Sunderland, who has been the focus of attention for his alleged fascist sympathies, spoke to the media to try and defend himself. And he said something very revealing. He said: 'I don't want to talk about politics because it's not my area'. He went on: 'We are not in the Houses of Parliament, we are in a football club'. That sentence reveals a lot about how people see our politics today.

Where do people think politics resides? In the Houses of Parliament, detached from them and their lives. Where does politics actually reside? It is everywhere: in the football club, in the mothers and toddlers group, in every part of society.

The other week I was privileged to be able to spend time with some of the Hillsborough families. They suffered unimaginable trauma and then 24 years of cruelty and grave injustice at the hands of what I will call 'the authorities'. Their inspirational campaign, doggedly supported by a whole city, was vindicated this year with the publication of the review of the independent panel and the new inquests will begin soon.

In conversation with them I was startled to hear the same thing: 'We're not really into politics, we're not political.' How have these inspirational women who have done something deeply political - successfully taking on the entire establishment and being vindicated - come to think of themselves like this?

People care about their lives and they care about their society, but they don't see that as political. They don't believe that politics is about them - they think it is about big ideas or bits of complicated legislation that don't really affect them.

We need to reconnect politics with people, but the challenge is enormous:

The Hansard Society's audit of political engagement says that interest in politics is the lowest it has been since they started the survey (Hansard Society, 2012, 3).

Voter turnout has been on average in decline for fifty years from over 80 per cent in 1958 to 60 per cent in 2010 (House of Commons, 2012) - and turnout in our most recent national elections, the Police and Crime Commissioner elections, was less than 15 per cent (BBC News, 2012).

Dealignment is a more pressing concern now than it ever has been, with the number of voters identifying themselves with a political party in decline.

Membership of all political parties is estimated to be at around just 1 per cent of the UK population.

In themselves these figures are deeply worrying, but think about what this means for an individual - someone in desperate need for something to change, but feeling helpless because they don't think it is possible to affect it. Politics has to understand and answer this cynicism. Because if people do not believe in the transformational power of politics then either the existing power structures remain unchallenged or democracy itself will be threatened.

Despite most of the newspaper coverage which implies the contrary, politics is not a game played out in the Westminster bubble. And it isn't a spectator sport either. But if those who democracy seeks to empower turn away, then politics will decay into all the trivial, personality-driven caricatures that I hear when I am out on the doorstep.

People may say that they aren't engaged, but that doesn't mean that they don't engage in political debate or have opinions. They just don't seem to connect them to the 'formal politics' going on day in day out at Westminster. Too much of that goes completely unreported and virtually unnoticed. It all seems like some esoteric game going on in London which is disconnected from the everyday struggles my constituents have to grapple with.

Our political messages are distilled into sound-bites small enough to fit on the front page of the red tops. Success is repeating that phrase as much as possible. Failure is causing controversy or diluting the message. But if they think about us at all voters want honesty and debate, not spin. The German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht once said: 'Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it'. His observation could equally apply to democratic politics, although I hope in a gentler way. We can create the society we wish to see. We can tackle the formidable challenges which face us but only if we work together and forge a new politics which engages, includes, and inspires.

In the Labour Party, we are taking important steps towards changing our own culture and the way we debate. I chair Labour's National Policy Forum, where we have recently transformed how we make policy so that we let go at the top and empower conversations at the grassroots. We have opened up our structures so that members of the public can tell us what they think too. We are determined that our next manifesto will be built on real conversations in real communities, informed by real lived experience. Now is the time for us to propose new ideas and debate them. We need to be bold and forward thinking - not too cautious to catch the changing tide.

And I say this to those who observe us and report the news: please try to understand and respect our democratic policy-making structures. Please also remember that disagreement doesn't mean disunity; it means that we are comfortable in our identity, we are a united team, and we are ready to have a real debate about the new ways forward for our country.

On Wednesday 27 April 1994 I was driving into the House of Commons with tears streaming down my face as I listened to Archbishop Desmond Tutu interviewed live on the radio, literally singing with joy. He had finally exercised the right to vote in a free election for the first time in his life after 63 years of waiting. Only recently, we all watched with baited breath as the Arab Spring toppled demagogues and dictators in the Middle East.

Why do we rejoice in the democratic freedoms of others, but seemingly have so little regard for our own? How do we begin to solve the cynicism we see about the power of politics to change lives? How can we rediscover the optimism of the Chartists or the suffragettes? We need a conversation about our culture, and I hope the People's Politics Inquiry will begin to help us understand what we need to change.

Democratic participation

The second area of focus for the Inquiry will be democratic participation. Elections are the heart of our democracy - yet voter turnout is falling, and unless we are very careful Individual Electoral Registration is going to speed up the decline. Voter turnout amongst 18-24 year olds at the last general election was just 44 per cent (House of Commons, 2011) and according to the Electoral Commission in 2011 only just over half of our young people are registered to vote (Electoral Commission, 2011).

Many don't even know how to vote if they wanted to and they are too shy to admit that they've never been taught. And there are other astonishing myths about voting which shame our great democracy. I once had to argue with some people in a strongly Labour ward who believed that their non-votes would automatically be counted for Labour! When I was first elected as Member of Parliament for Wallasey in 1992, the turnout was 80 per cent. In 2010 when I was returned for the fourth time it was 63.2 per cent. There were many constituencies with far worse voter turnouts than mine.

The Electoral Commission does good work with its voter registration drives but even before Individual Voter Registration many millions are disenfranchised and missing from the register. We have neglected our democratic infrastructure.

So here are a few things we might consider. It should be easier for people to vote. Ballot boxes could be where people are - at the supermarket as well as the school - and we should consider electronic voting. If we shop online and bank online with the proper security against fraud, then why can't we vote online?

We should consider incentives for voting. How about entering everyone who voted into a lottery? What about making election day a bank holiday? Some have suggested compulsory voting, although I am personally dubious. I welcome the introduction of online registration as a part of the move to Individual Voter Registration. We should also consider the case for a national register. Everyone should be taught the mechanics of voting. What was once information handed down informally through family structures must now be available to all.

We should do more to embed democratic practice in every aspect of our society, starting in our schools. Mock elections should be routine, and citizenship education should be protected. Pupils should have hands-on democratic experience in running their own school-based clubs and organisations. For example, Debate Mate has already shown that it is possible to encourage pupils to learn the art of debate while still at school. We need new and creative ideas to encourage more people to the ballot box. I hope the Inquiry will help us find solutions that work for people.

Reforming Parliament

Parliament is the third focus of the Inquiry. It is the fulcrum of our democratic system and it needs to remain at the heart of our national debate. To deal with the crisis in our politics we need to make Parliament more relevant and more understood.

To that end I would like to pay tribute to our modernising Speaker. He has built on the work done by Robin Cook when he was Leader of the House by trying to make Parliament more timely and relevant to the daily news cycle. The increasing frequency of Urgent Questions is a clear gain, as is his commitment to extending the educational outreach programmes to translate our Parliamentary rituals to an increasingly bemused public.

I believe that too often when we talk about parliamentary reform our starting point is wrong. Rather than thinking how Parliament looks to the outsider looking in, we think about our own experience as MPs. I am not saying we shouldn't do that, but it shouldn't be our starting point.

From that perspective, I think one of the places we should begin is simplifying the legislative process so that the interested citizen can more easily understand and engage with it. The recent extension of scrutinising draftbills is welcome, as are the public reading stages of some Bills. But these experiments will not work unless they are accompanied by a far more substantial 'outreach programme' to ensure that awareness of these opportunities reaches beyond the existing NGOs and professional lobbying companies. I think we need to take a hard look at how our scrutiny of legislation works, and I will be instigating such a discussion in the coming months.

Some of the political high points in recent years have come from the work of Select Committees. They played a vital role in cutting to the heart of some of the scandals that have rocked public confidence. It is my view that as we move forward we need to explore whether Select Committees should be given greater powers - perhaps the power to scrutinise bills, and more time on the floor of the House to debate their reports. I welcome the Wright reforms to the Select Committees but I believe this system of scrutiny of the executive needs strengthening further. More resources would be welcome but in these straitened times resources are not easy to come by.

My experience as a minister taught me that the civil service does not really understand or appreciate the work of Parliament as much as it should. I would like to see far more opportunities for secondments from the civil service to the House service and vice versa. Departments do this with the private sector and they should certainly do it between the executive and the legislature too.

In the twenty-one years I have been a member of the House much has changed. Deference has gone, which is good, but it has been replaced by contempt, which is not. I know we will have to work hard to ensure that the reputation of our Parliament recovers and grows. I don't have all the answers, but I do know that we need to do more than just tinker around the edges.

I think we also need to take action to create a more representative parliament. When a disengaged member of the public casts an eye towards the chamber, what do they see? A mass of grey suits and a world which looks nothing like their life, speaking a language they rarely understand. I'm one of just two out lesbian MPs in the Commons and I'm one of 146 women MPs in a chamber of 650. We don't have enough of a diversity of backgrounds, classes, or previous employment.

The nineteenth century traditions of the Commons quite simply aren't conducive to a modern workplace. The working hours challenge family life, and the tone of debate is all too often adversarial and off-putting. I was both told to 'calm down' and called 'dear' by our Prime Minister. The model of leadership thought to be desirable, and which is implicit in all of the media's political coverage, is brimming with machismo. Political parties are there to be 'mastered' and 'disciplined'. As soon as a general election is declared all female politicians mysteriously disappear from our TV screens. My colleague John Trickett MP is doing some important work at the moment in this area. He is looking at how we can get more working class MPs and more MPs from different backgrounds into parliament.

Conclusion

I saw the other week that there is a company that has been set up to try to charge people to register them to vote. I think that says it all about the nature of our politics today. Part of the legacy of Thatcherism is a consumerist politics. The promise of One Nation Labour is a contributory politics, where everyone has a stake and everyone is encouraged to play their part. We need a new political consensus for a new time. I've always said that if you don't do politics, then you get it done to you. We will be on the way to solving the crisis in our politics when we help people to understand that, and when we empower them to take responsibility and play their part in fixing what is wrong.

Angela Eagle is the Shadow Leader of the House of Commons and Labour MP for Wallasey.

 

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References

BBC News (2012) 'First police commissioners chosen amid turnout concerns', BBC News Online 17.11.2012, at http://wwwnews.live.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20352539.

Electoral Commission (2011) Great Britain's Electoral Registers 2011, London, Electoral Commission, at http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_ file/0007/145366/Great-Britains-electoral-registers-2011.pdf.

Hansard Society (2012) Audit of Political Engagement 9, London, Hansard Society.

House of Commons (2011) General Election 2010, House of Commons Library Research Paper 10/36.

House of Commons (2012) UK Election Statistics 1918-2012, House of Commons Library Research Paper 12/43.

This article is an adapted version of a speech given by Angela Eagle to the Hansard Society in April 2013.

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