Almost four million people have registered to vote since the election was called. Everywhere people are engaging in political conversations. Labour has embraced this surge.
We welcome it not just because millions of people have been inspired by our transformational manifesto and the prospect of a different kind of country, but because a healthy democracy requires participation from its citizens.
Yet this democratic upturn can’t disguise a general sense of dissatisfaction with politics in this country, which is dominated by a tiny elite circle who rule in their own interests. We’ve all felt it or encountered it in our communities. There is a feeling that politics just isn’t working the way it should; that decisions are taken secretly and remotely – by the few and for the few.
This remoteness is often felt in terms of geographical distance, with Westminster serving the great centres of wealth, such as the City of London. It is also felt in terms of class, as in many communities across the country political power is closed off to all but a privileged few. The causes of political alienation are many and they are tied to our unequal economy and the widespread sense of injustice it feeds. Conservative governments have failed to use their power to change this.
Indeed, they have intensified the problem, choosing instead to cut or sell-off public services, deliver corporate tax breaks and deregulate – policies that benefit a small few at the top. Some have called the current government a ‘government of all the lobbyists’, and as Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office I have seen up close how the relationship between big business and government has in the last few years become more intimate than ever before.
This was made remarkably clear by a recent report on the fracking industry, which the Information Commissioner’s Office forced the Conservative government to publish just last week. The report reads like a fracking industry wish list and reveals just how deeply corporate interests penetrate Whitehall, and how obliging the previous Conservative government was. Evidence also points to the current Conservative government being equally obliging when it comes to ongoing trade talks with the US Government, which is in effect representing US corporations keen to access NHS markets and profit from the watering down of food standards.
The Conservatives, of course, have rarely used the powers of government to tackle injustice, but they have become increasingly blatant in using them to serve the most rich and powerful, who in turn fund the Conservative Party to the tune of millions, or use their newspapers to spread falsehoods. Quid pro quo.
The real question, though, is not what the Conservative Party does when in power, but why our institutions allow it. Because for many people it has become clear that power is subordinated to corporate interests and those of the wealthiest and most powerful. But this is not how power is meant to function in a democracy, where decisions are supposed to serve the interests of the majority. Clearly something isn’t working. So how do we fix this?
Our first step must be to dramatically increase accountability and transparency, with the aim of unpicking the ways in which corporate power exercises influence on government and the state. A Labour government will start by rewriting the rules on lobbying. We’ll create a new lobbying register covering the millions of pounds worth of corporate lobbying conducted by in-house lobbyists and think-tanks – which is currently not captured by existing legislation – as well as by consultant lobbyists.
We’ll also require lobbyists to declare the specific nature of the lobbying engagement, who is being targeted, what policy areas are under discussion and on behalf of whom. Our new lobbying register will be accompanied by a ban on MPs holding paid second jobs, an expansion of the Freedom of Information Act, reform of political donations, and re-written business appointment rules, enforced by a new statutory body that will replace the ineffective Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACoBA).
In this climate of secrecy and corruption all of this is essential to restoring public trust in government. But addressing the balance of power between the many and the few requires a more fundamental rethink – not just of government but of the very institutions of our democracy, which are archaic, dysfunctional and desperately in need of rebuilding. This has become blindingly obvious the last three years, as the nation’s attention has been on the character of political power like never before.
We’ll start by making sure more people than ever have a say in our electoral process. A Labour government will expand the franchise to include 16 and 17 year olds and all UK residents, as well as introducing a system of automatic voter registration. We will also scrap the Tory government’s Voter ID plans, which Boris Johnson intends to continue as part of a wider programme of voter suppression, should the Conservatives win the election.
But it is our longer-term plans that have the potential to profoundly reshape our political institutions. If elected, Labour will work towards abolishing the House of Lords and replacing it with a democratically-elected second chamber, properly representative of the regions and nations of the UK, which have been held back by an over-centralised Westminster system.
Increasing the range of voices and perspectives in Westminster must be accompanied by spreading power out of Westminster. This is why a Labour government will devolve power, as with our commitment to One Yorkshire. Where possible, decisions are best taken by those most affected by them. And if we are to rebuild faith in politics, change needs to be carried out with the consent of the wider public and not simply handed down from on high.
That’s why our renewal of Parliament will begin with a constitutional convention that will ask crucial questions on how power is distributed in the UK today, how the nations and regions can best relate to each other and how a Labour government can put power in the hands of the people.
Crucially, this will be guided by a citizens’ assembly. Citizens’ Assemblies will not replace our political institutions and nor should they, but what they can do is engage citizens in a process of collective thinking and planning. As we have seen recently in Ireland, they can bring people from all walks of life together to collaborate and produce recommendations that have the potential to be transformative.
It is people power in action, and ideas produced outside the existing system are more likely to have the potential to truly change it. As Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, if Labour is elected I will take responsibility for overseeing this process, and I will ensure that there is a clear timetable and procedure by which a Labour government will act on the Assembly’s proposals.
This is the least we can do, though it won’t be a quick process. Our archaic institutions have remained remarkably unchanged for hundreds of years. This is part of their strength, but it is more so part of their weaknesses.
What comes next cannot be the gift of a Labour government alone, handed down from on high. It must be developed and put into place by a movement for real change – a democratic revolution. Labour will seek to work in partnership with the people to rebuild and renew our democracy. Let’s take the first step together on December 12.