By Director of Media Richard Wood
Note: this is an extract from our manifesto - 10 Steps to a Better Democracy - which you can read in full here.
"Politics shouldn’t just be about soundbites delivered with a shot of the Houses of Parliament in the background; it should be about engaging people in politics at a local, grass-roots level. UK political system is arguably one of the most centralised in the world. TalkPolitics supports greater devolution of power to city mayors and local councils to ensure politics does not become Westminster-centric. We also believe that local councillors could play an important role in delivering political education." - Step 6
Politics is “not just standing in Westminster at Prime Ministers’ Questions shouting at each other. You know that’s really not what it’s about; it’s about helping people and that’s why I’ve got here and a lot of young folks are really enthusiastic about improving their communities, but they don’t understand that you can do that as an MP so it’s kind of about making those links.” - Kirsty Blackman MP (People Behind The Policy).
The UK’s political system is highly centralised and incredibly Westminster-centric. Its centralisation has only been diluted in the last couple of decades thanks to devolution in different parts of the country, but for many across our isles, the hubs of power still lie too far away. TalkPolitics strongly supports localism and the idea that power should be decentralised wherever appropriate and feasible. With this we also support making politics more accessible, all in all showing our support for bringing politics outside of Westminster.
Changing Attitudes to Politics
Politics means power, and too often that power is inaccessible for many communities. When many people think of politics, replays of the rabble of PMQs will start in their minds’ eyes, and unfortunately, this will turn many off the whole thing. However, in reality, the spectacle that is PMQs - and other questioning sessions with ministers - is just one dimension of British politics. Of course, it’s important to hold the government to account through such channels, but politics is so much more than debating across an ancient chamber. Politics is the means to change one's community. This doesn't only mean at the top echelons of society for the UK as one large community, no, change also comes from the middle and bottom of society both in the sense of 'communities' further down the hierarchy of power (such as councils and devolved assemblies and parliaments), as well as through means outside governmental institutions.
Therefore, in order to beat political apathy we need to tackle the bad image that politics has, and more specifically make politics more accessible - by emphasising that politics is more multidimensional than Westminster - and strengthening local powers to give smaller communities more of a say.
Challenging the Westminster-centric Narrative
As stated, MPs do more than just talk and vote in London. Being an MP involves a lot of work and time spent away from loved ones as MPs have to split their time between London and their constituency wherever that may be. Votes in the House and other political business conducted in the capital are truly important, but MPs represent constituencies and are the medium through which residents can communicate with the country’s government and parliament. The perception that MPs spend all of their time in a ‘Westminster bubble’ is one that has to be challenged. The flipside of this is promoting awareness of local constituency offices, the work MPs do for their local communities and their team of staff that work in the constituency, helping out with casework and linking power with people.
Our ‘People Behind the Policies’ interviews, for instance, aim to show that politicians are human too and spread the word that our political representatives are not just faceless men and women in a distant Palace of Westminster. The series of interviews includes talks with Nick Clegg MP, Nicky Morgan MP, Hilary Benn MP and much more. Additionally, the fact that a relatively new campaign group has managed to get interviews with such high-profile MPs shows that politicians are more accessible than some may think.
In our ‘People Behind The Politics’ interview with Kirsty Blackman MP, she discussed how she uses social media to reach out to constituents who otherwise might not have been able to contact her. Social media is one innovative way MPs are connecting with their constituents and we hope that the 2017 parliamentary intake embrace this more than any other parliament before them in order to bridge the gap. New technologies are incredible tools for strengthening our democracy, which is also why TalkPolitics supports looking into digital voting options for the electorate and is committed to supporting a system whereby MPs can vote on bills when away from parliament if they know how they would vote. It’s important to have a debate in the chamber, but such an option would allow more flexibility for MPs, and allow them to spend more time in their constituencies whilst also casting votes. Furthermore, the ability for MPs to vote at the click of a button in the chamber like in Holyrood rather than wasting time valuable parliamentary time through queuing would streamline and modernise parliament, making the whole thing more accessible.
Apathy is damaging and these are just some of the steps that should be taken to beat it in order to create a better, more accessible democracy.
The other way of making politics more accessible is by bringing power directly to the people. That's why TalkPolitics backs the current trend of powers moving down from Westminster and to local communities. However, the great shame is that the further down the hierarchy of democracy one goes, the sharper turnout falls. Council elections traditionally only get turnouts of around a third of the electorate. Elections for devolved institutions have higher turnouts, but well above the rest stands turnout for UK general elections. This is because power is concentrated right at the top of British society. Luckily, the tide is turning against this concentration, with the latest addition to localism being the Metro Mayors, first elected in 2017 and the city deals scheme.
Furthermore, councils are not just faceless machines that are at fault when bins are uncollected, no, councils, have a large say in one’s local community, and that needs to be promoted more. Individuals need to be engaged with the work that councils currently do, especially young people who are less likely to vote than their older counterparts. Our interviews with young local councillors aim to counteract this, showing that young people can get involved and get engaged to better their communities.
Localism is beneficial, but turnout is just too low and that needs to be tackled – it’s all very well having these layers of governance, but they need to be legitimised with higher turnouts. Too often councils are talking shops, and clearly, people are only voting in elections which they think will have more of an impact. This is why we support strengthening the powers of local councils and giving them more responsibility, something that would make elections to them more relevant due to the increased ability of them to make needed changes.
Localism and devolution are happening slowly. There is no coherent vision about how power should flow from the top, but the consensus here at TalkPolitics is that bringing democracy closer to people will result in better, more appropriate decisions being made.
Image: Ignacio Palomo Duarte @Flickr