Jeremy Corbyn kicked off his general election campaign with a speech in which he criticised the unfair ‘rules’ he says currently govern politics. He said that existing rules “have allowed a cosy cartel to rig the system in favour of a few powerful and wealthy individuals and corporations.” Corbyn is right – the system is rigged, and it leaves people feeling that they have no influence. For Labour to convince the public that they stand on the side of the people, and not big corporations and the elite, only bold new ideas will suffice. There must be a focus on putting power back into people’s hands by making our voting system fairer, kicking big money out of politics, and forging a robust devolution settlement.
There is a visceral anger at the way politics is conducted, which came to fore during and since the EU referendum. People are fed up with a distant Westminster that doesn’t meet their needs. Figures from the Hansard Society’s latest audit on democratic engagement, published this month, showed that a meagre 30 per cent of the public are satisfied with the way parliament works and only a third of people believed that if people like them got involved in politics they could make a difference to the way the UK is run. If Labour is serious about fixing the system, then it is the systemic issues that need to be addressed.
No system is more clearly rigged than our electoral system. First Past the Post is unrepresentative, disproportionately benefiting the largest parties and repeatedly maintaining the status quo. Political parties are able to command a majority of seats in parliament without a majority of the vote, while smaller parties, and by extension their voters, have little chance of representation in parliament.
Such a policy may seem counter-intuitive at first glance. Why should Labour change a voting system that they benefit from in some seats? If Labour took such a bold stance on giving power back to the people, then it would be positioned as a truly principled party that wants to break the dominance of the political class. Any individual or party that claims to be serious about fixing a rigged system and returning power to the people must start, first and foremost, with making sure that each individual’s vote counts.
Looking beyond our voting system and the inbuilt inequality in at the ballot box, it is not surprising that people don’t think politics is working for them with parties being beholden to big donors. The Tories, Labour, the SNP, and the Lib Dems have all received single donations of £1 million or over from wealthy individuals in the past three years. Transparency rules are meant to help the public scrutinise the party funding system, to see who might be securing undue influence, however these rules are riddled with loopholes. Labour should enforce a lower cap on donations to end the influence of party donors once and for all, and alternative means of funding political parties is needed so that parties are encouraged to appeal to a large number of ordinary people, rather than a handful of rich donors.
Labour would also do well to tackle head on the dark money flowing through our political system by cracking down on lobbying. Big business buys influence, channeling huge sums of money towards efforts to secure access to politicians, drowning out the voices of charities, NGOs and the people. The 2014 Lobbying Act established a lobbying register that was supposed to shine a light on this murky world but it captures no meaningful information that would allow the public to scrutinise whether politicians’ decision-making is being subject to undue influence. The register currently contains just 140 entries when we know there are thousands of lobbyist in the UK. Of those who are required to register, we have no information about what they are talking about or even who they are talking to. Corbyn should pledge to introduce a new comprehensive lobbying register to bring lobbying out of the shadows, and crack down on MPs who take up second jobs with political consulting firms and corporations.
Power is so concentrated in the hands of the few because the UK is one of the most centralised states in the democratic world. If Corbyn is to deliver his promise of ‘giving people real control over their own lives’ then he needs to bring decision making closer to the people. Devolution should extend beyond Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to parts of England too. Devolved political bodies that are more closely attuned to the needs of their communities should have the power to decide and implement policy independently of Westminster. Corbyn committed to a constitutional convention on Scottish devolution earlier this year at the Scottish Labour Conference. But he should go further, committing to holding a convention on the future of devolution in the rest of the UK.
Corbyn is right to say that our political system is rigged, but to fix these systemic issues Labour must be bold. Inaction is often justified by claims that people don’t raise democratic reform on the doorstep, or that it is just a distraction at a time when Brexit dominates the headlines and the NHS is at stake. However people do talk about democratic reform, just not in that language. People say how powerless they feel and how nothing ever changes. Getting our democracy right is fundamental to the fight for better schools and hospitals and to ensure that everyone is society has an equal voice.
Labour should inspire the public with a longer term vision of democracy in which people have a real choice at the ballot box, where the influence of the elite is halted, and where local communities are given power from Westminster to make their own decisions. The EU referendum has been characterised as a backlash against the establishment, and politics needs a overhaul. Power needs to be returned to the people, but only bold change will do this. A failure to tackle these issues will leave people feeling more alienated than ever, and to inspire real change seismic changes need to be put front and centre of the Labour manifesto.