I want to briefly talk about the need for a new kind of parliamentary democracy.
Nearly eight hundred years ago, in a field twenty miles west of here, the arbitrary and unjust rule of King John was forcibly restricted by a group of rebellious barons. The Magna Carta established the basis for a regular parliament, with powers to limit the king. It established a law of the land, giving every free man the right to due process, to fair legal treatment against the arbitrary violence of the state.
It began a line of thinking that would lead to parliamentary democracy. When we ask now, what should a parliament do, and I want to ask everyone – what should our parliament do? – we think of impartial representatives who speak up and make sure that the welfare and basic rights of the majority, of the collectivity, are the most important basis of all the state’s actions.
You’d think that in 800 years we might have come closer to realising some model of parliamentary democracy. True, there’s now universal suffrage for all men and women that our ancestors fought and died for. Yesterday’s terrorists are today’s democratic heritage. But today this right to vote doesn’t matter. Young people are deserting politicians in droves, in the UK and elsewhere. This right to due process, to fair legal treatment, is being fatally undermined by successive Tory-led and Labour governments with cuts to legal aid, and with legislation that exploits the fear of terrorism with a terrorism of its own, subjecting everyone to total surveillance and making it possible to arrest and detain people without charge.
Our parliament is a sham. It has failed to respond to the crises of the last few years. It has done nothing to prevent another banking crisis, nor punished those who caused the last. It has casually awarded itself pay-rises and generous expenses whilst the living standards of most people, particularly the poor, plummet. Look around. Insecurity is the new normal. Food banks; police spying, lying and killing of unarmed people; the career-insecurity, exam stress and huge debts that now dictate life for most young people; the decline in skilled and dignified employment; the lack of a long-term solution for our energy needs and environmental problems; where the working classes, the unemployed, and the disabled, have been made out to be a modern-day vermin. Many more, I won’t go on. Because of these failures, the word ‘politician’ has become a term of hatred second only to ‘banker’. Unpopular politicians are democratically illegitimate.
Some people think that the Labour party can be reformed. I disagree. The next government, quite possibly a Labour one, will bring in many of the same Oxbridge-educated people who formed the last one. Its leader has repeatedly praised Margaret Thatcher! I wonder, how many of tomorrow’s MPs will come from state schools, or without a university education, or without experience in business, law and PR, or without being the child of an existing MP? How many people are in the House of Lords because of their political allegiance to the government, or for donating to whatever party’s in power? Piecemeal attempts at reform cannot overturn this. Corruption is at root and branch. This is not a parliament fit for the majority of the British people.
What’s the answer? I’m not entirely sure. Unlike politicians, I don’t claim to be right, to have a monopoly on the ever-changing truth. But reactionary policies and a slavish pursuit of good media coverage and a few swing voters by Ed Milibot isn’t the answer. What will he actually agree to do if elected? I’m not sure, nor is he accountable if he does not. There’s nothing I’ve heard that suggests that this House will try, through policy, to tackle the long-term problems of housing, poverty, work, the environment, energy, of retaining a free national health service. More of the same stalling, mutual blaming and inaction. More fiddling and diddling.
I think instead that for anyone committed to equality, justice, and liberty, which I think most of us are, we need to start the fight for a new kind of parliament. One without political parties, without jeering public school boys, without the possibility for mega-rich party donors to dictate state decisions. Where it is impossible for five families to have more wealth than the poorest 20% of this nation. A parliament for the people, made up of people from all walks of life in its lower chamber, perhaps selected in a way similar to jury service, and made up of experienced and impartial experts in all fields in its upper chamber. With an elected, not hereditary, head of state. Accountable and transparent. With a codified constitution to prevent police violence and political corruption. With a set of civil rights to prevent the vulnerable dying when their benefits have been unfairly stopped, and from so many working people living under the daily anxiety of debt and hardship. With regular opportunities for direct democratic and proportional representation, beyond the 5-year first past the post shambles.
It is possible. I don’t think I’m being entirely utopian here. I’m expressing the same kind of ancient ideas that led to the formation of a jury, of a right to due process, of equality in law between rich and poor, of the right of all adult citizens to vote, of a welfare system, of free universal education up to the age of 18, and a national health service. Each puts the welfare of the majority at its centre. Not through words, but through democratic institutions.
I’m not a fortune-teller, but I’d bet that 2015 will see a low voter turnout, particularly among the young. Why vote, when there’s nothing to vote for, when the difference between major parties is little? British politics is facing a crisis of legitimacy. This house is a sham. Let’s start thinking about a new parliament of the people.
* The above is what I said at the People’s Parliament at the House of Commons this week.