Amidst the ongoing barrage of parties’ pledges and promises where’s the opportunity for the people to say what we want? For us to set out our stall? Rather than as now, those standing for election guessing ‘the mood of the country’, packaging a bit of what we want with quite a lot of theirs, spelling out in weasel words what they deign to offer we ‘umble proles.
Here’s an idea to address this and improve the democratic process – not that difficult to achieve, but the potential to help promote democratic engagement, effective government, and quality of life. An idea long in gestation but encouraged by Matthew Taylor’s recent ‘Vote Osborne Get Balls’ blog, and Jon Henley’s recent G2 interview with Sir Michael Barber.
They remind us that the ability to bring great ideas and plans to government is not the same as the ability to deliver: as was indeed my experience steering a major council as a cabinet member, and too sitting weekly with government ministers on a parliamentary committee. There’s an obvious – but all too easily overlooked – need to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.
And two factors perhaps mean the balance has moved more to the ‘walk’ than the ‘talk’: the size and inertia of government machinery, and the current broad consensus about much of what government is about (NHS, welfare, inflation, etc).
I say obvious – but does our current system, one vote every few years for our MP and so (to some extent) our government, allow us to focus on those two key aspects of what we need in our politicians?
At risk of labouring this, much of the electorate is very concerned about the green agenda: but would we really want the Greens to run the country? Or indeed, echoing Matthew Taylor’s point: if we collectively really did want that green agenda, wouldn’t Cameron or Miliband pretty certainly deliver better than Bennett?
My proposal is that we therefore look to separate voting for our priorities from voting for who would achieve those best. Two ballot papers, one for what we want, the other for who we want to deliver for us. One person, two votes.
So how would this help?
Firstly, this offers a proper opportunity to express our own concerns, what we the people want our government to prioritise. At present we don’t have that, we have a ‘take it or leave it’ setting-out-of-stalls by our prospective political leaders, with no opportunity to pick and mix. Coalition and minority government horse-trading may make this worse not better.
The current process sometimes feels more like the currying of favour by rival factions in a royal court than a genuine attempt to deliver what the electorate really wants. Vying for power, masquerading as democracy. Yet with an increasingly sophisticated electorate there’s now less requirement (and indeed willingness) to trust our leaders to tell us what we need.
Secondly, it enables us to focus separately on individuals’ ability to deliver on our behalf. As the Blair government famously complained, achieving change isn’t easy. We’re reminded of the need for relevant methodology – or better hard experience – as well as intellectual credibility and mindset. That separate focus would encourage leaders to come forward with relevant CVs and delivery strategies – and enable us to assess candidates accordingly.
Thirdly, this gives a more appropriate way to hold government to account, with regard to citizens’ preferences and so ‘quality of life’. At present governments are held to account during office primarily against their manifestos, which may be achieved or indeed out of date after only a year or two – and then at election by democratic vote. The opportunity to vote for our priorities would set a yardstick against which to assess a government’s progress throughout their term of office. And to keep that government on track, for up to five years as now, I’m sure many of us would be happy to vote our priorities on an annual basis.
Briefly then, the difficulties. Would this mean much of a change to the parliamentary process and machine? Not necessarily, though it might mean less of a focus on legislation, and might make politics less colourful, less adversarial. Parties’ individual ideologies and mindsets would still be very important, and they would still present their own manifestos; though these might then focus more on each party’s delivery credentials, and how their particular values might inform and refine that delivery. The resulting elected government’s credibility might in fact be strengthened, with civil service (and other stakeholders) less able to argue they know best.
The key challenge to think through would be to create an effective process to enable that voting for priorities, as the framing of a shortlist could easily be open to political bias. And, if there were say ten priorities for electors to consider, could it work for electors just to pick a top three. However, agreeing (and delivering the agreed) process could be a great opportunity for public engagement, for instance through a system of primaries where citizens could raise and argue for their own concerns. Perhaps the final choice and wording would need the help of an independent quasi-judicial body. The recent innovation of Neighbourhood Plans, which (where they’ve taken off) have brought together both grassroots prioritization and expert professional oversight, is a useful parallel.
Difficulties to overcome, of course, but not beyond our collective wit. The judgement then is whether the upsides of democratic engagement, effective government, quality of life outweigh the challenges of a bit more complication for the voter – and a bit less lese majeste for our democratic leaders.
Chris Naylor is LGiU’s Head of Partnerships. He was a councillor in LB Camden (where he co-ordinated the Liberal Democrats manifesto team) 2006-2014 and Cabinet Member for Housing 2006-2010; he was also on the Liberal Democrats DCLG Parliamentary Committee at Westminster.
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