Sunday, 26 July 2009

After the Great Stink

Only by giving away power can the Government restore trust in a damaged political system. This is my editorial commentary in the Summer 2009 'Red Shoots' issue of the Fabian Review.

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After the worst stench of disrepute hung over Westminster since the open sewers of the 19th century, Labour's worst electoral performance for decades and the shame of two British fascists in the European Parliament, Labour appeared to be a party on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

The question of leadership now appears settled; very few MPs can have any appetite for a third botched coup, and the May rebels had neither a candidate, nor any clear agenda for change. But the more important question was always about the public argument and political direction of the government.

There have been too many distractions; it should have been easier to identify what they were a distraction from.

Gordon Brown's government has shown more policy purpose in response to the recession, but has yet to tell voters what Labour seeks a further term in office to do.

Not being the Tories will not work a fourth time when 'anybody but Labour' has become a popular sentiment too. That means a dispiriting, anti-politics campaign will see the incumbents lose by default. A fighting chance for Labour is only possible if voters believe there are substantive differences at stake.

Labour can best address what it stands for now with a concrete and radical agenda for how the Government will use the next 290 days of power than through shiny vistas for a hypothetical fourth term.

Labour has the bully pulpit of power. It could still frame public arguments, testing would be 'progressive' Conservatives who no longer oppose what they recently opposed, and seeking to entrench Labour's claim as to where the new centre of British politics lies.

This is not to advocate defeatism, still less a scorched earth policy. It would create a real contest, by offering voters the choice they have the right to expect.

But this can be done only if the government's agenda on the three central issues - public spending in a post-recession economy; political reform; and the climate change deal we need - are clearly about radical change, rather than defaulting back to business as usual with incremental reform.

The Iraq inquiry demonstrated this danger. The Prime Minister's initial commitment to hold an inquiry, over a year ago, was important. As the point was to learn lessons from the most contentious foreign policy episode for half a century, it was vital to go the extra mile for openness. A rapid rethink, after an untenable initial instinct for privacy, means the inquiry will be more open.

This can be diagnosed as a bad case of governmentitis, where the advice of the Cabinet Secretary seemed to trump elementary public politics.

The Iraq inquiry offers an important broader lesson as Gordon Brown revives the idea of a new constitutional settlement.

Many fear it is now too late in the day, even those sympathetic to the cause. Proving this wrong depends on Gordon Brown recalling a lesson from his first decision as Chancellor: making the Bank of England independent. Giving away power to restore trust is the only way reform will have public credibility now.

Offer a referendum on electoral reform. Create a citizens' convention to begin writing our new constitution. Let the politicians listen - and the people decide. It would take a leap of faith. If this may seem unlikely, there is a new politics to be gained. Is there so much to lose?

* More about the new Fabian Review issue. Fabian members will receive their copy of this week. You can Join the Fabians here.

1 comment:

Michael said...

One question; do you not think it's less a case of 'giving away power' and rather more a case of dissolving unwarranted power? I think it is the second of these two that irks the most; if someone intervenes/snoops/interferes unwarrantably then it makes little difference if its a government minister or a local council official thats doing it, it's still bloody annoying.