Time has run out: the ice caps are melting, forests are burning and cities are running out of water. The attention of Parliament and the media is elsewhere, totally uninterested in the Climate Emergency. If we are to face this challenge we must address the lack of representation and accountability in Parliament. This article builds on my earlier two on the Climate Emergency.
In an article for the Guardian nearly 20 years ago, Peter Tatchell pointed out that improvements in democracy and social justice have come about through the direct action of people like Mahatma Gandhi, Sylvia Pankhurst and Martin Luther King. He wrote that:
“Margaret Thatcher’s much-hated poll tax was defeated when millions refused to pay and hundreds of thousands protested in the streets. Opposition MPs had proved powerless to stop the poll tax. But when people took power into their own hands, Thatcher’s flagship policy collapsed.”
It was direct action that removed Colston’s statue from the centre of Bristol. At her trial Rhian Graham stated:
“… that there have been campaigns to have the statue of Colston removed from the town centre going back to the 1920s. Multiple petitions and protests and even support from a Bristol MP had failed to bring about any change”.
We owe a great deal to those who are prepared to risk financial loss, physical harm or imprisonment to bring about change. Insulate Britain, Just Stop Oil and others are being forced into direct action because the pool of MPs that government is drawn from is neither representative of, nor accountable to, the people who elect them. With the government threatening new laws to clamp down on protest, the people need to respond through their political parties, trade unions and faith groups and press for changes to make parliament more representative and accountable.
Here are some suggestions on both Representation and Accountability.
Four changes that would improve representation are
- Political parties should be funded entirely by their members, with the most anyone can give set as a percentage (say 1.5%) of the average wage.
Parties with policies that are supported by the public should win elections, not those with the most money. Millions donated by corporations and wealthy individuals were used on social media adverts to help win the 2019 election.
- Political parties must select candidates using a common transparent process.
In “Why We Get the Wrong Politicians” Isabel Hardman showed that the barriers erected by parties to get the “right sort” of candidate deter many good people. Too often the wishes of local party members are set aside. A transparent process regulated by the Electoral Commission is needed to determine how candidates are selected covering nominations, campaigning, hustings and the use of ranked voting.
- Progressive parties must put forward a single challenger for every seat.
Progressive parties that wish to address climate change must work together to gain power. A transparent process regulated by the Electoral Commission as above should be used to organise a primary election to select a joint candidate.
- Extend the right to vote to those aged 16-17 years, and those who have settled in this country.
Currently five million people who contribute to our society through taxation are denied a vote in national elections. In the past revolutionaries and suffragettes declared that “taxation without representation is tyranny”, and it still is!
Apparently some MPs believe that they are already accountable. Asked whether Geoffrey Cox was serving the needs of his Torridge and West Devon constituency by working the equivalent of 35 hours a week on his legal work, Dominic Raab said:
“It’s for the voters in any individual constituency to look at the record of their MP and decide whether they’ve got the right priorities.”
With five years between elections people are unlikely to know what their MPs have done or voted for. MPs have little to fear from a recall petition but more frequent re-selection and re-election would make a huge difference, especially to those who:
- Vote against the recommendations of the parliamentary commissioner for standards.
- Award government contracts to their friends
- Sexually harass their staff
- Vote to allow the discharge of raw sewage into coastal waters and rivers
- Accept gifts
- Make misleading or false statements
- Vote to allow properties unfit for human habitation to be rented as housing
Being an MP is probably the only job where, once appointed, there is no probation period and no appraisal for 5 years. History tells us that if we want our representatives to be accountable we need more frequent elections. In 1788 James Madison (Father of the US Constitution) referred to an old adage
“… that where annual elections end, tyranny begins“
and in 1838 the Chartists noted that with annual elections:
“… when elected for a year only, (MPs) would not be able to defy and betray their constituents”.
In order to improve accountability, one could amend the fixed term parliament act to elect MPs every year. The cost and bother of more frequent elections seems a small price to pay to ensure that MPs progress the issues that they have been elected to address. If the progressive parties can agree to work together each seat should be a two way contest between “those who put their own interests first”, and “those who put the needs of others before their own”. There should be no such thing as a safe seat even with the current electoral system.
Greater accountability will show that it is the people who are in control, and not party managers or their sponsors, and should encourage a wider level of political engagement and support for the changes needed to address the existential threat that we are facing.
Radical Change is needed
At the start of thepandemic, voices pressing for basic public health measures were largely ignored. Government continues to be in denial that lives and costs could have been saved had they acted as countries in South East Asia did to control the spread of the virus.
The Climate Emergency threatens our very existence; many groups are on the streets pressing for action, but the government shows no sign of urgency; there are still no details of how the nation will reduce the emission of carbon dioxide or the steps to be taken to create a sustainable economy.
Clearly the government’s response to both the pandemic and the climate emergency has been led more by commercial interests rather than by the will of the people.
Without a parliament that is representative of, and accountable to, the people we could be faced with decades of direct action, potentially spiralling into wider disorder, as division and levels of deprivation worsen due to the effects of climate change. There really is no need to criminalise a generation fighting for their future, or fill our prisons with protesting pensioners.
The governance of our nation is in need of massive reform, and yes we also need
- elections based on Proportional Representation
- a fully elected second chamber
- new assemblies for the English regions
- a written constitution
- to rejoin the European Union
These are all big complicated issues but time has run out. The ice caps are melting and the forests are burning, there will be an election in a couple of years and the next Parliament we elect mustbe focused on the transition toa sustainable economy.
The changes in accountability and representation outlined above provide a pathway for progressive parties to create the Parliament we need, even with the current electoral system and to give people hope that we can do what we need to do for the sake of future generations.