A new version Published in Resurgence Ecologist Issue 304 September/October 2017
Together We Are Stronger
In Britain, we need a revolution in how we do politics, argues Bruce Nixon, who offers his own, distinctive recipe for reform
We have a dysfunctional democracy in Britain. This adversely affects almost every aspect of our lives. Government is an obstacle, not an enabler. There is a lack of courageous, visionary leadership at the top. So we fail to address the most fundamental challenges facing us: above all the risk of human extinction through climate chaos, destruction of our habitat or nuclear war, economic and social injustice and failure to resolve conflict without violence. We need to ensure that everyone benefits from the Fourth Industrial Revolution — developments in medicine, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics — and that it does not give even greater power to the few.
Under the current form of democracy, half of us are unrepresented and disempowered. We are a divided nation in terms of prosperity, wellbeing, housing and health. There is a huge gap between London and the South East of England and the rest of the country. Swathes of former industrial heartlands continue to suffer generations of unemployment and deprivation.
Meanwhile, however, we are in the midst of a revolution in politics. There are more political parties and vast numbers of progressive political movements – largely under the radar of the conventional media. They involve thousands of young people and broadly equal numbers of women and men. Their processes are inclusive, not top-down. Their territories are mass gatherings, the internet and social media. Young people have voted in much greater numbers at the recent general election. Jeremy Corbyn, a disrupter, has grasped these changes and as a result the Labour Party benefitted.
We have a unique opportunity to create a new democracy, a model for the world. We need to focus on a vision for a better world, a good society, a good Europe and a good democracy. To achieve this, a new kind of leadership and new a ways of involving people are needed. The biggest lesson is: we need to collaborate and embrace difference. This article offers proposals.
Brexit was a huge protest vote
The message of last year’s Brexit referendum was clear: Westminster needed to listen. The two main parties had not listened to the diverse needs of people in different parts of the UK. Similar messages come from all over Europe and the United States. Ultimately if people feel unheard and unrepresented, it leads to violence. Brexit distracts from such vital issues as the possibility of human extinction through climate change or nuclear war, or the overuse of resources.
To say that “Brexit is the will of the people” is nonsense. Astonishingly, it goes almost entirely unchallenged inside Parliament and in the media. Repetition again and again, whenever the issue is discussed on the BBC, reinforces a falsehood in people’s minds. Anyone who repeats this mantra is knowingly or unknowingly supporting the oligarchy’s grip on power in the UK.
It was the will of only 51.9% of those who voted, many of whom had been grossly misled; certainly not the will of most people under 45. There is nowhere in the world where 37% of an electorate would constitute a mandate for such a major constitutional change. Generally a two thirds majority would be required. And the flawed referendum, inappropriate for such a complex issue, was only advisory. Polls now show a shift to Remain. Brexit is a disaster: which political leader has the courage to say this and demand that it is abandoned?
People want a different kind of politics
The wrong kind of people get into political leadership. Instead of providing far – sighted strategic leadership, they focus on winning and holding on to power. Politics is adversarial whereas collaboration is needed. There is widespread dislike of adversarial, often abusive, debate. Debate is half-truth, often untruth. Verbal abuse is a form of violence. We need to listen and learn. No single party has a monopoly of wisdom. As Satish Kumar says, opposites make the whole.
The two main political parties have been riven by conflict
Rather than fight among themselves, they need to value their diverse membership and listen. They also need to respond to the diverse voices among their own constituents: business people, people in the public sector, the general public, especially younger people, people who are suffering most and progressive people. Difference makes the whole.
‘One party rule’ is out of date
In 2015 the first-past-the-post voting system led to a Conservative government, backed by less than 24% of those eligible to vote, continuing to inflict neoliberal policies on the nation. Continuing harsh austerity measures would have been impossible but for this deficiency. Austerity, an illiterate policy in a recession, obstructs economic recovery, harms the most vulnerable and is damaging every aspect of our society. Majority rule results in poor decisions and leaves at least half of us feeling angry, frustrated and disengaged. A divided country is an unhealthy one. We now face two years of uncertainty and as Professor Sir Cary L Cooper says, uncertainty leads to psychological stress.
We need a clear vision of what a good democracy looks like
This is mine:
- A written Constitution
- Citizen-led Conventions to determine the Constitution.
- Parliament the principal decision-making body of government
- The Prime Minister should be head of a government elected by Parliament as a whole
- Proportional representation voting systems for national, regional and local government
- 50:50 representation for women and proportionate representation for black, Asian and ethnic minorities.
- Devolution of power from Westminster to regions and local government
- An elected reviewing chamber
- All elected politicians should be liable to recall by their electorate.
- A cap on individual funding of political parties, and complete disclosure
- End the so-called “revolving door” allowing politicians and senior civil servants to move swiftly to top jobs in the private sector
- Votes from age 16
- The rights of future generations to be recognised – see the work of the Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations for more on this.
Under a system of Proportional Representation, such as the Single Transferable Vote (STV), in Britain’s general election this year, this would have been the distribution of seats (the actual result is given in brackets):
Conservatives 275 (318),
Labour 260 (262),
Liberal Democrats 48 (12),
Scottish National Party 19 (35),
Green Party 10 (1),
UKIP 11 (0),
Plaid Cymru 3 (4),
Democratic Unionist Party 5 (10)
Sinn Fein 4 (7)
(source: Make Votes Matter).
It’s a condemnation of the political class that they have resisted reform for so long. Again, courageous leadership is needed.
Proportional Representation would have had a similar effect in the 2015 general election. The Conservatives would still have been the largest party, but their 37% of votes should never have been equal to 51% of seats in a real democracy.
The first and most important step is to replace the first-past-the-post system
Britain is the only country in Europe using FPP for national elections. Proportional Representation would enable the main strands of public opinion to be better represented. In the run-up to the 2017 election, Compass: together for a Good Society led a Progressive Alliance of parties working together that resulted in many progressive MPs being elected. Collaboration like this could help make PR happen.
A Constitutional Convention
We need fully participatory processes to make the many important and far-reaching decisions about our future. Molly Scott Cato, the Green Party Member of the European Parliament, has called for a National Constutional Convention to bring citizens and politicians together to discuss the democratic future of the UK. Given how long it will take to agree a new relationship with the EU, now seems a good time for communities to discuss our future outside or inside the EU. Such a process could help heal the deep and painful divisions created and exacerbated during the referendum campaign.
A new kind of leadership is needed in the 21st Century
Courageous, transformative, enabling leadership is needed that embraces the full diversity of the nation. Leaders need to involve all stakeholders in bringing about change. Imposed change does not work: many initiatives imposed by successive governments have failed because people “on the ground” were not properly involved from the start. Dedicated people become alienated and exhausted. Some choose other work, adding to shortages of skilled people and the pressures on overburdened and underfunded organisations. A recent example was Jeremy Hunt’s attempt to impose a seven-day week on junior doctors.
An enabling state
Most initiatives required to create prosperity are created by individuals and communities, not the state. The state’s role is to enable. Our concept of leadership must be one that enables people to empower themselves, releasing their creative energy and, by resolving conflict, the power of love. Love is a powerful force: love of one’s work, workplace, colleagues and love of one’s country. Margaret Wheatley describes this well in her article Leadership in the Age of Complexity: From Hero to Host .
In place of greed, we need to embed servant leadership throughout society. Excessive consumption is driving us towards extinction. Prosperity must be redefined as wellbeing. We need to live lightly on the Earth. Today we need about 1.6 planets’ worth to provide the resources for our consumption and absorb our waste. But which party leader has the courage to say this?
Getting the whole system into the room and involving all stakeholders
This is a principle for creating change. It enables people to build consensus and create solutions that work for everyone. Leaders need to value difference and recognise the importance of “getting the whole system into the room”. Future Search is such an approach. In his book Consensus Design Christopher Day describes how people start with one view of what needs to be done and by listening with respect, instead of trying to win the argument, come to a different and far better solution.
If you want more information on the ideas I’ve outlined here, look up the following organisations. I don’t necessarily subscribe to all of their policies or suggestions, but they suggest new ways of approaching our political problems:
- Britain for Europe
- Centre for European Reform
- Electoral Reform Society
- Make Votes Matter
- Open Britain
- Servant Leadership UK
- The Convention
- The Progressive Alliance: Together for a good society
- UK in a Changing Europe
Bruce Nixon is author of The 21st Century Revolution – A Call to Greatness
Views expressed in Opinion columns may not necessarily represent those of The Resurgence Trust.