Politics

Too many unknowns – the Labour leadership

The Labour Party is less than a week from a shattering election defeat, and already the leadership election appears to be in full swing. Soundings are being taken, domain names registered, and backers recruited. But is the party in a position to choose the right candidate to lead it to victory in five years time?

What do we know about the 2020 election?

It will be held on 7th May 2020.

The world and the country will be a very different place five years on. Politically, we will have had the EU referendum. If we vote to leave there are huge political implications, not least the potential for Scotland to leave the UK in order to stay in the EU.

We also know that by 2020 there will be a new leader of the Conservative party, and therefore a new Prime Minister with a new leader bounce.

Plenty more will have changed. What will be the state of our economy, our public services, our security? If Labour needs a new leader to appeal beyond former coalfield areas, university towns and London, can we predict now the politics of coast and country five years out?

In any other walk of life the new leader would be appointed for around three years. She or he would stabilize the party, lead an effective Parliamentary opposition, and build a good electoral platform through the Scottish elections, the London mayoral elections and the EU Referendum.

There is much to do in terms of listening to neglected parts of the country, raising money, succession planning and changing the party structures to reflect the fragmentation of British politics.

When Tony Blair won in 1997 he had been leader for three years – not a full Parliament. John Smith had done vital preparatory work such as OMOV before he tragically died. This made Tony’s job and reforms considerably easier.

My political friends will call me naïve. But I would love to have a candidate declare that he or she will do the job we need doing for the next two or three years and then will open up a new leadership election. He or she may run again and can be judged on a record of reviving the party’s fortunes, and in comparison with the likely new Prime Minister.

The upside is that those who are dismissed as experienced but too associated with the past, have the chance to use that experience and maybe redefine themselves as leaders for the future. It would also give a chance for candidates that offer a break from the past to build experience and prove through campaigning around the country that they are the one to win in 2020.

The downside is if it became a three-year feeding frenzy for journalists. Potential leaders would need to know they would be judged on their discipline, their positive record and their ability to work with colleagues.

This is not a proposal for a caretaker leader. It is a proposal for a renewable fixed term contract. It is counter cultural, but with the known known of the next General Election and the very many known unknowns of the next five years, I think it may work.

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Politics

Change the political paradigm

Six months ago I stood down from the Labour frontbench after nine years, to take up an exciting full time job in education. I still attend the Lords to vote and speak, but I have enjoyed having some distance to reflect on politics in this country.

Outside of Westminster and the media, most people say the same thing: “I’m not really interested in politics…they’re all the same.” I’ve heard that on doorsteps for over twenty years, accompanied by declining turnouts at elections, but I’ve rarely stopped to really drill into what people are saying.

A yes supporter decorates his home - http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/sep/08/scotland-future-referendum-excitement
That changed last month when 85% of voters in Scotland showed they were deeply interested in politics. When politics became relevant to them. Whilst the Yes campaign lost, there was a strong sense that voters on both sides wanted politics to change significantly. I don’t believe Scottish voters are unusual.

At one level “they’re all the same” could be about people in politics. Too many private school and Oxbridge educated white males – like me. Too many who’ve never achieved anything outside politics, and too much over-promotion of intellect and under-promotion of empathy.

But reflect longer and there are perhaps two other aspects where it may look like “they’re all the same”.

they’re all the same

First, is the appearance that they care more about winning power than using it. I know the vast majority of politicians are in it for the right reasons but the entire political culture is geared around Westminster elections and the positioning needed to win them.

The middle ground is where elections are won and so parties disproportionately focus on how to win votes and craft policies to appeal to the same few electors – leaving everyone else feeling irrelevant. It exposes politicians as being inauthentic; because what they feel is hidden behind what the middle ground tells them they want to hear.

To the disengaged this looks like a game. A game where negative campaigning wins. That dwells on image. That does so because political parties can’t risk setting out a vision that describes doing anything profoundly different, in case it loses the election.

This is the second problem. The way politics is done hasn’t changed much since the Empire. The debates for decades have been about the role of the state, and the balance of tax and spend. Now the main UK parties seem to agree on cuts and balancing the budget, but with a heated debate about which benefits to cut and how much tax to give away. But it all sounds very similar.

The old ways of doing things are now as useful as Stone Age tools in the Bronze Age

An ageing population, climate change, globalisation, technological change, indebtedness – all the great challenges facing us mean the current paradigm must change. The old ways of doing things are now as useful as Stone Age tools in the Bronze Age.

The case for wholesale change in the way representation, executive decision-making and law making is done has never been stronger. By happy coincidence the public are desperate for a new way of doing things too. Many politicians are starting to see it too but like music industry bosses waking up to Napster and iTunes a decade ago, they don’t know what to do. Meanwhile the destructive populism of UKIP is allowed to thrive in the vacuum.

There are no easy prescriptions to the sickness sweeping our politics. But I would start with looking at what is going on in the new economy.

In their 2010 book Macrowikinomics, Dan Tapscott and Anthony Williams offer some clues.

They start with the story of how Ushahidi was used in the 2010 Haiti earthquake to massively improve the effectiveness of disaster response. This crisis mapping site was developed over a weekend by a Kenyan lawyer in 2008, following disputed elections. When the Haiti earthquake struck it took an hour for the same platform to start recruiting the global Haitian diaspora, from a basement in Boston, to translate, categorise and geo-locate thousands of text messages in real time. They used Skype to then relay information to search and rescue teams in Port-au-Prince and respond to requests from the World Food Program and the US military. This bottom up technology proved way more effective than observation on the ground.

This is a social application of the disruptive technology that is the heart of the sharing economy.

The Linux free open source software, that is now in everything from BMW cars to Android phones, has spawned a $50,000,000,000 Linux economy. There are many other examples where co-production of services by consumers is creating massive value and disrupting whole industries, most recently Airbnb. Many of these “prosumer” products are highly resource efficient, empowering of the public and are growing really fast.

What if these forces were embraced by government? What if the sharing economy was accompanied by a sharing society? Could we design public services to cut out the middle layer, the agents, the managers, the bureaucrats, and directly connect consumers and professionals?

There are signs that some are starting to do this.

  • Fix my Street, here in the UK, is a long standing example of changing the relationship between local people and local government.
  • I met a group from China last week who told me about their system of national care credits, where the care you give can be exchanged in the future for care you receive.
  • The US Patent Office has moved to using the public to check patent applications – the volumes became unmanageable and so they had to crowd source it to keep up with innovation (if patents can be effectively regulated by the public, why not replace the House of Lords with mechanisms for the public to improve legislation instead?).
  • TES Global operates a platform for teachers to share their teaching resources. The network has over 6.5 million members downloading over ten items per second.

digital mutualism

Truly designing digital mutualism for public services ought to be a no-brainer for progressive politicians. It is putting power wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many not the few. It is the co-operative movement re-born in a post-industrial age. But is does mean those with power and influence choosing to give it up – including at the top of the Labour movement.

Embracing a new political paradigm is a big ask. Are we ready for strong government but less active government? For public sector innovation, ending the cult of the policy expert, and being open, transparent and collaborative?

The prize is better services, more personal and at less cost. It depends on rebuilding trust out of the trust we have to share our homes on Airbnb, rather than out of the ashes of the expenses scandal.

This sharing socialism may not be the new paradigm. But I am convinced that the old paradigm is over. If we don’t find a new one fast we will be left behind, and people will find a new politics.

Jim Knight is a member of the House of Lords and Managing Director of Online Learning at TES Global.

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Politics

Reform the Lords – along with the rest of politics

Last week I was persuaded by the engaging Giles Dilnot to be interviewed for the Daily Politics on Lords Reform. His report rightly pointed out what a stuck record this is, and one I have normally avoided as a huge waste of time. However I have lately been wondering about more radical political reform, including the Lords, and thought I had better explain the context of what I said on camera.

The Lords currently do a pretty good job of using expertise and experience to improve legislation. It is impossible to justify Parliamentarians being appointed for life, but any reform to fix this grotesque anachronism must also improve its function. Electing the Lords would simply create a rival elected chamber to the Commons and would not provide a politically independent improving secondary chamber.

These are the tried and tested arguments for the status quo. But the status quo should not be an option either.

The sense of disillusionment amongst my non-political friends and anyone else I talk to about politics has never been greater. Election results and polling show a total lack of faith in politicians. Protest parties do well as electors struggle to see much to choose between the main parties as they squabble over the middle ground. Meanwhile in Westminster few believe their own party will do well at next year's elections.

The answer to this wholesale disillusion is not simply to reform the Lords. The answer is to go back to what Parliament is for and see how reform of the executive, of representation and of the legislature can help re-engage the public.
 
We need a government to make executive decisions on our behalf. Currently we vote every five years, always on a Thursday, with a pen and paper in an often unfamiliar community centre in our neighbourhood. That vote is not directly for the the leader of the government. It is for our local representative who is then one of 650 that decides who forms the Government.
 
This is absurd and confuses representation and executive power. Most people voting for their MP are thinking more about who they want as Prime Minister rather than who they want representing them in Parliament. We should end that confusion and allow people to directly elect the PM.
 
The PM should then be allowed to choose ministers from beyond the talent pool of Parliament. Take the executive out of Parliament but retain the harsh accountability to Parliament. Representatives will then do their job and legislate freer of the patronage and pressure of Government whips. The Government would legislate less and focus on more competent decisions, co-ordination and delivery.
 
Most important this change would allow for enhanced representation. Our Parliament is unusually dominated by the Government, especially the legislative programme. Our representatives should be freer to run campaigns and then legislate in their own name. In this Parliament we should have had a Creasy bill in payday loans or a Perry Bill on online safety. Instead Stella Creasy and Clare Perry are dependent on how they manoeuvre the executive to change the law.
 
A reinvigorated representative function could help spark political re-engagement. And where would that leave the Lords?
 
If we legislate less and free up the Commons to spend more time on law making, then we need an improving second chamber less. I believe we could then move to use collaborative online tools to ask the public to use their expertise to improve law as it is made. Or we could use citizens juries to do the same.
 
The Commons must still be the primary chamber. They should continue to overrule the second chamber, but make that a second chamber of the public. Why shouldn't the amending phase be a combination of wiki legislation and a citizen jury that hears evidence and then agrees amendments. Each bill would have it's own jury informed by a transparent online process.
 
The vested interests in Parliament are very unlikely to agree. And of course I am being provocative. But I am absolutely sure that we will only re-engage the public if the the whole political process is reformed and welcome other ideas that want better processes for the executive, representative and legislative functions of Parliament. Get that right and then we solve the enduring conundrum of Lords Reform.
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