To defend politics we need to change how we do politics


Rt. Hon. David Blunkett MP, Member of Parliament for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough

Faith in democratic institutions, the media and broader political processes has fallen to dangerously low levels. The 2012 Audit of Political Engagement by the Hansard Society revealed the proportion of the public who say they are ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ interested in politics has dropped by 16% and now stands at 42%, falling below 50% for the first time since the audits began.

Meanwhile, Peter Kellner, president of the polling organisation YouGov, tested in spring 2012 the proposition that ‘Britain would be governed better if our politicians got out of the way, and instead our ministers were non-political experts who knew how to run large organisations’. Almost as many people agreed, 38%, as disagreed, 43%.

It could be described as nothing short of a coup in terms of what occurred last year in Greece, with the removal of the Prime Minister, and in Italy, with the removal of both the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. But clearly, Britain is not exempt from this growing trend of anti-politics.

Yet it is at this moment we need politics and, dare I say it, politicians more than ever. Both to articulate the language of priorities, as described by Aneurin Bevan, but also to mediate and decide between contradictory demands from the public and short term pressures alongside long term imperatives. How much should we cut spending; do we need to raise taxes; how do we structure our health and education systems – making progress on these complex issues can be met only by elections, political engagement and democracy.

Yet in order to defend politics and therefore political democracy, we need to change the way in which we ‘do’ our politics. My pamphlet In Defence of Politics Revisited, published this week, sets out several concrete suggestions for how to achieve this.

One idea, for instance, is that for government to directly support mutual action and key campaigns would be unusual but not unthinkable. In the spring of 2012, Which? organised, under the heading of The Big Switch, almost 40,000 people coming together to negotiate a much better personal deal in relation to domestic energy consumption. Government support for such initiatives would be transformational.

Similarly, nurturing the process of getting people to run their own facilities locally can be seen as one of the few positive developments from the austerity agenda. There are good examples in North America of how services have been reshaped to offer this new way of meeting need. In Oregon in the USA, for example, people with mental health conditions are helped to live independent lives through a personal budget. They are assigned an advisor to identify goals and how to best use the budget to buy goods and services which will help them achieve these aims. ‘Co-delivery’ would help people to help themselves.

At the heart of pioneering a new approach to service delivery, we also need new finance mechanisms to help tackle the widening gap between rich and poor. This should include lifelong accounts developed jointly between the individual and contributed to through government funding.

And at the centre of all this, we must refocus politics on core issues that matter most to people. Taking on the challenges of an ageing population and affordable retirement, and mobilising civil society through volunteering (including direct support to the million young people out of work and training) will require engagement, creative thinking and determination.

We need to reaffirm that the political process is not merely compatible with progress and development in the twenty-first century, but essential to it. By restating the importance of politics and politicians in Britain, we can build from the bottom up, and begin to reverse the worrying anti-politics trend, which empowers the elite technocrats and leaves the man or woman in the street, with a mere vote to cast, defenceless.

In Defence of Politics Revisited, by David Blunkett MP with a foreword by Ed Miliband MP, is available in full on his website


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