Sunday, May 07, 2006

Power Inquiry Conferece - Cedalion Wuz 'Ere

The Power Inquiry Conference was held yesterday. I took notes and have finally got around to writing them up. So here is my subjective report of the Conference. I've outlined it around the main speakers and the gist of what they had to say. I've also included their answers to questions asked. Unfortunately I didn't put down the questions, which is a pity, as there were a few loony outbursts that made for some comedy and squirming. How about you play a game of "Thats the answer, whats the question?" Before I get kicked into this, just a quick hi to Davide, Nick and Amy whom I met at event.

Helena Kennedy
Widespread cynicism over elections prompted Inquiry.
There was a good response to Inquiry.
The Inquiry didn't hold back from making radical proposals even if it would prove to be uncomfortable for the politicians.
This has proved to have been the biggest consultation ever in UK.
The biggest factor is Alienation not Apathy.
The problem is systemic as a result of a 19th Century framework in a 21st Century society.
More engagement, more involvement, less deference from the electorate.
End of unquestioning loyalty to main parties.
Need to rebalance power for the 21st Century.
To do so:
Redistribute power from Executive to Legislative.
Re-establish the importance of the Cabinet.
Redistribute power from Central Government to Local Government.
Need to bring in Concordat to replace unwritten constitution – create a flexible spine around which we can build our 21st Century political system.
Reform the Lords – the need for this is demonstrated by the scandal of the Loans for Peerages.
Electoral Reform – cap on donations, state funding nominated by voters but solely for use by the parties to work with local communities, not to pay for Spin Merchants.
MP's need to have an AGM in their constituency.
We urgently need to revitalise Democracy!

Ferdinand Mount

Why does this Inquiry matter? Because the legitimacy of democracy is called into question by the critically low turnout.
We are going to get more unrepresentative MP's due to smaller pool of candidates due to lower membership of Parties.
Disillusionment and disaffection amongst the most disadvantaged. Those who suffer the most complain the least.
IPPR report is completely wrong - NO COMPULSORY VOTING!
Engage the young, otherwise run the risk of losing them forever.
We need a real say in who represents us – open lists for selection of candidates, in fact what we really need is open list proportional representation.
Direct participatory democracy vital. The Electorate need more say than once every 5 years
Disillusionment feeds extremism as witnessed by BNP gains.
Make our political establishment the envy of the world again!

David Cameron

You have to recognise that something is wrong before you can put it right. (Love the pop psychology Dave, it was only a matter of time after uttering this that he came out with MP's being in denial.)
Identifies alienation as the problem
This is not universally recognised in Westminster by MP's
There is complacency from those in power
People feel they have little or no control

Bogus Arguments
This is a tide of apathy – look at the activities that the electorate get involved in from community work to charities to single issue causes.
Politics is too similar – glad to see the end of Cold War divisions. Consensus is good. As long as genuine differences are not concealed. (Self serving bullshit under a very glossy veneer.)

Bogus Solutions
Compulsory voting – State should be the servant not the master. Like making everyone turn up to your birthday party and then declaring yourself to really popular. (I liked this, except that I think that this was actually one of his childhood anecdotes.)
Changing trappings – upgrading the traditions of Parliament, e.g. Getting rid of wigs, changing the name of visitors so that it isn't “strangers” is superficial. You need to get to the real roots of the problem.

Proposed solutions
There needs to be Institutional changes – rebalancing of power and its distribution
From Executive to Legislature, (he explicitly avoids Europe here.)
More free votes for MP's as against whipping.
Standing committees, which Thatcher brought in, should be made more powerful
This government introduces too much legislation, too quickly, too little time to scrutinise
Remove power of Executive to ride roughshod over Parliament
Deal with Royal Prerogative, especially the power to go to war without consulting Parliament.
Reform Lords – they are good at scrutiny, but they need legitimacy and therefore need an elected element.
1. Sleaze needs to be addressed – the Ministerial Code needs to be given teeth
2. There needs to be a bonfire of Whitehall Central control mechanisms to return local rule to local councils
Reverse regional assemblies, all of which are little more than needless bureaucracies, give more power to local government and communities.
Police authorities report directly to Central government which is a problem. The Chief Constables should all be directly elected by the local areas. (Not sure how I feel about this, but prepared to keep an open mind.)
Speaking as someone whose party is discriminated against by the FPTP system, he does not agree with the PR system.
FPTP provides a direct link between MP and constituency
Problem with electoral system is a lack of say. He will open the candidate lists and establish Primaries.
He wants behavioural change in Parliament, there is no point in bickering for the sake of bickering. (As long as he gets to be Punch, and Judy is restrained, I think is the idea judging from his past performance.)
He says he is going to make a series of speeches about what really affects Joe Bloggs, rather than seeing the Electorate's needs through Departments such as the NHS. (JOY! Dave is going to come down to our level and see the world through our eyes!)
The People must be trusted and given responsibility. (I wholeheartedly agree.)
There must be an Empowering state rather than an Overpowering state. (Nice soundbite, although I was quite concerned by the disappearance of one of his hands and strange jerking movements from behind the podium.)
Society is more complex. (Give the man a banana.)
Insert guff here about analogue and digital analogy.
Sharing responsibility between governed and government.
Politician must realise that we can no longer do it all ourselves, we have to share power.

Questions and Answers
Closed lists have no place in today's democracy.
No top-down model for participatory democracy should be imposed on local councils.
Politicians need to combine robust debate with politeness and reason.
Need robust competition in media The internet is challenging big newspapers as people could now publish their own newspapers. (They're called Blogs David.)
Need to allow people the control of things at an individual level. Brings in vigilantism on Balsall Heath. Wonderful thing that people can do to remedy prostitution and Drug dealers. (Says nothing about where these miscreants moved to, nor gives the slightest thought to the ethics of the local vigilantism that he is cheering on. This worries me greatly, it might as well be Blair up there.)
There needs to be caps on funding, but in return there needs to be some state funding.
Today, we have a society of more sophisticated consumers that want better choices.
Labour are “ineffectual authoritarians.
Getting involved in politics means taking part in community institutions.
AGM's a good idea? Yes, but not enforced as it will lead to calls for extra funding. He reckons he can cut the costs of MP's.
Powers of Select Committees should be reviewed and increased.
Asked by Emma B how he can guarantee he will carry out his promises if he gains power. He replies that Key Reforms must be made at the start of government. For him, the top priority is the review of Royal Prerogative.

Overall, I listened with great interest to what Dave had to say. He is a very polished performer, and obviously a smart man. But you really had to look for what he wasn't saying. I have an awful feeling that this man will be worse than Blair because he is so adept at mixing the Honey with Poison.

Breakout Session – Reviving Political Parties for Democracy
Run by Demos
Tom Bentley (Demos)
John Craig (Demos)
Ed Miliband MP (Labour Party)
John Craig immediately wants to frame the debate. He starts using market analogies. Imagine Parties as washing powder. What is everyday democracy and how to connect the parties to this?
He wants us to be active listeners. Please consider 3 points throughout the discussion
How can we invest in renewing Political Parties?
What can you learn from non-political institutions such as Tesco?
How to involve Parties in the community?
Tom Bentley then addresses us. It becomes rapidly clear that he is only there to address Ed Miliband. I have recorded the first bit of his spiel then refused to take any of his other poncy shit seriously, if anything out of respect for myself and the rest of the audience who were obviously just there to decorate the room.

"My father is a vicar. Religion and mass parties are unique in that they are both open and accessible forms of association. But both have lost their place in our lives.
Politics has dissembled across all of our lives Can all these opportunities be brought back into institutional frameworks? Parties have to work vertically and horizontally. Most politics takes place outside of institutionalised political space.
Need much more transparent practices for candidate selections
Parties need to learn how to connect issues to make collective campaigns."

Ed Miliband then gave us his spiel:
Politics is an increasingly minority sport
Should we care if people don't join Parties?
Why have people stopped joining Parties?
What can be done to encourage it?
1. Weak parties are not necessarily a good thing. Look at America and their Congress. All too individual. Keep the Whips. Parties are bad at education. Can't we have a Lefty book club? How do you hold MP's to account?
2. Why the decline?
a. Decline of class and greater prosperity
b. Convergence of Parties on the main issues
c. Political parties are unreformed and too hierarchical
d. Parties offer a package deal which is no longer appealing
The individualism and consumer society means that Parties are finding it difficult to engage as everybody wants different things.
3. What can be done?
The Party allows for a voice, but more can be done.
Community advocates?
Engagement is in danger of being one way, just listening. Politicians need to engage people honestly.
Parties should provide a social network – how to integrate people's different needs and interests.
There needs to be a sense of mission – a new narrative:
a. What are the Party's interests? Who are they for?
b. How we relate to each other? Individuality vs. collectivity
c. How do we relate to the wider world?

Answers to Questions
I need to point out that a lot of the questions were more statements, some of which had nothing to do with the theme, but hardly any to do with Demo's agenda. I would like to thank the old man at the back with really thick glasses who loudly exclaimed that all politicians were University wankers. Made me feel right at home there.

Important for local people to have a voice, NIMBYism is hard to combat. Not sure how to make sure how to get neighbouring communities to work together when both are lobbying to keep their hospital open at the risk of the other one closing.
Resolutions not universally attractive. He wants flexibility for government while giving members a say. (In response to a question from Peter Kenyon, very eager to point out the need to have a written record of everything that goes on in a Party.)
Education for Party members needs to be better. State funding being looked into.
Political Parties react to recent past. After the '80's blood-letting the Labour Party was more disciplined at the expense of debate.
Councils and other forms of local Government can indeed look like “Chequebook organisations” (in context of fraud and financial impropriety and the reluctance of local government to be transparent.) But the real question is how do you find a place to build social capital?
Warning of Deane organisation is that it has evaporated. Democrats lack permanent campaign structure.

Menzies Campbell

The Power Inquiry Report should worry every elected official in the country.
Dysfunctional system in which disaffection has reached critical levels.
Roadblocks still remain:
Electoral reform
House of Lords
Local Government needs Renaissance.
Empower people as citizens not as subjects.
People feel that Government does not trust them with information.
Trivial Media patronises the Electorate.
Without written constitution, the system can be manipulated to the advantage of Executive
Parliament is now managed, not engaged.
We face the situation now that a party may get into power which does not have the most votes.
Politics itself has failed when it has failed its purpose of representing those who need it the most.
Less than 3% of UK voters have a fair vote.
62% of citizens did not choose this government.
Need restraint on Executive urgently.
Need a written constitution. Concordat is only a first step.
Flexibility in the hands of an authoritarian government can be abused.
We need an examination of the Royal Prerogative.
A Wars Act is needed.
Treaty making needs reviewed. For example – Extradition Treaty with USA where Congress has not ratified its side of the deal, yet we are honouring our side, a one sided treaty.
Reform of the House of Lords – Cannot be considered independently of Party Funding and Prime Ministerial patronage.
House of Commons no longer represents the UK electorate.
Need Electoral Reform.
Sever Central Party control of funding.
New working group citizenship to be set-up by the LibDems.
Supports Citizen initiated petitions and inquiries.
Reinventing Democratic institutions needs public involvement.
Reassert sovereignty over Parliament.
Use new technology to bring people into the debate.
Virtual conference to encourage debate hosted by LibDems will be set up in the next few months. Everyone welcome to take part.

Individualism is discouraged in Parliament. Any kind of deviation is treated by the media as a weakness. Ambition discourages individualism. PR would allow for a far higher degree of independence. It allows the election of rebels, e.g. Scotland.
Sam Younger of the Electoral Commission should not resign over the Postal Ballots fraud scandal. Blame the Government as it declined amendments.
Possible place for Museum of Democracy proposed to be built in London to run alongside the Olympics, as long as its on the understanding that Democracy is alive and well around us.
Sovereigns do not give away privileges they have to be taken, and once lost, they are very difficult to retrieve.
Parties are the problem. Vested Interests must be broken down up.
Why a written constitution? Look at the US constitution, but be careful with the power of judges.
David Cameron is wrong, you can throw out governments with PR. Would be willing to break MP-constituency link if more people would vote and Parliament was more representative.

As you might have guessed from the lack of my sniping, I have a great deal of respect for Ming. He came across as the politician who had the most substance, while lacking Dave's style. For me anyway, I think he was on the money everytime and handled himself with great dignity. I've been wondering for a very long time which Party I could support, if any at all. He's clinched it. I'm nailing my colours to the mast as a Lib Dem supporter. (Which party inside the Lib Dems is another question for another day.)

Question Time
PT Peter Tatchell
EM Ed Miliband
SK Saira Khan
NB Nick Boles

Should we have a Presidential style election for Prime Minister?
EM Against a Presidential style direct election of Prime Minister.
SK Should be able to throw out ministers that do not perform, as in business.
NB Return it to the proper parliamentary system.

If you could take just one recommendation from the Power Inquiry report, which one would it be?
PT Fair Electoral system.
EM Royal Prerogative.
NB House of Lords reform.
SK Public inquiries.

Can an MP serve two masters, his constituents and the Whips? (My question so I should be able to remember it.)
EM Need whip system
PT More free votes as we need to reflect the electorates wishes
NB You should remember the 3rd master, the conscience
SK Ask the People

Are you in favour of giving more power to the House of Lords after reform?
PT Strengthen the House of Lords after reform. Greater scrutiny need to be had for EU legislation.
EM Worry about the downgrading of legitimacy of the House of Commons blocks House of Lords reform.
NB Need a written constitution. Need it elected on different basis. House of Lords needs to be done for PR
SK Need referendum on ID cards. Government needs to trust people. Politicians don't want to share power.

Should voters be given financial incentives to vote?
NB Hates the idea of financial incentives. Wants compulsory voting, none of the above box, its the price for a free society.
SK Need to give people a reason to vote. People have lost interest, how do politicians get back to voters?
PT Saira is right
EM Not in favour of compulsory voting/have to find ways to combat underlying Antisocial Behaviour. How do you combine representative and participatory democracy, can't have populism.

How can you recommend referenda when they are just used to beat governments on other issues?
SK Referenda work, trust the people
NB Saira is right, and referenda should be used more often

The Government generalises about my life, thinks it knows best, why?
EM Generalisation is inherent to government thinking isn't great.
MP's are only good after looking after those with needs.

MP's only do half a week, are on holiday most of the time, and have too many perks when they're not voting themselves a payrise
NB MP's actually work really hard
PT I didn't want my snout in the trough

Should there be less whipping?
NB More free votes
EM More rebellions since 1997 than ever before

NB Localism and devolution is incredibly important. Devolve to English councils, powers and taxation, solution to West Lothian problem
SK Politics is broken. Bickering turns people off. Who are they to tell us what to do? People aren't engaged because they can't relate. Need to share power locally.
PT Democratic deficit, Gender deficit, Ethnic Deficit.
Two member constituencies. Males and females candidates must be both put forward
In areas with 30% ethnicity, there should be at least one ethic candidate.
Is the Nation-State no longer relevant? Why can't we devolve all power down to county level?
Needs to be change, how do we take this forward? How do we make the politicians listen? We have to make our voices heard, we need a second Chartist movement.
EM We need to give more power to Local Government. We need to promote Citizenship and a dialogue needs to be built. Politicians need to have humility and admit that they can't do everything. This is a real challenge in a consumer society who want everything and want it now.

Helena Kennedy
This is as far as the Power Inquiry can go, its now up to you. We need a serious campaign to make the politicians listen and commit to change.

I know that I haven't quite got everything down, and there may be places where others who were there may quibble with what I have down. Why not pop over to Davide's blog and check his account? Between the two of us, we should have got most of it. Other than that, it was a really interesting event, very diverse group of people attending, some of it very entertaining, very few bits boring. Helena Kennedy is a real character and it was impossible not to warm to her quickly. And she's right, we need to get together and push the agenda or this will all be for nought!


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