In the UK it’s taken Brexit and a shock General Election result to ram it home, but finally the message is getting through across the political spectrum: People are voting for radical change. The voters might not agree on who is best placed to fix what’s gone wrong, how to make it happen, or what kind of future is best, but they agree that all’s not right and that’s got to change.
While Theresa May was swift to respond after the EU Referendum with her powerful first speech on the steps of Number 10, it was Jeremy Corbyn who seized the policy initiative in the General Election. The consensus in this rising tide of support for old-time socialism (which sounds fresh and new to those who’ve never experienced it and who don’t feel much like winners from the system in place right now), is that capitalism needs to adapt to survive and the Conservative Party needs to get an urgent grip. I don’t disagree.
However, in the long term, changing policies (or even party leader) won’t be enough. Because the underlying problem isn’t limited to any one political party – it’s the way we do politics that’s wrong.
As a former Leader of one House of Parliament (albeit the unelected House of Lords), I am particularly interested in the way we behave in Parliament when we legislate to bring about change, and the challenges of doing that in a polarised world. To me, it’s inconceivable that the 52% who voted to ‘take back control’ and the voters who tried to force radical change at this year’s General Election want both Houses of Parliament to carry on as if, to coin a phrase, nothing has changed.
We know that the arrogance of governments and the petulance of oppositions frustrates voters. Our failure to collaborate to get things done in their interest is probably the single biggest thing which unites all of them against all of us. It marks us out as different. Anybody with an ounce of common sense faced with a big problem will work with whoever they need to get it fixed. Why can’t politicians do the same?
And it’s not just a complaint you’ll hear in the UK. US politics has become so partisan that Trump’s recent collaboration with the Democrats on the Hill was big news. (Though given his campaign promise to shake things up, the media shouldn’t have been so surprised).
Whichever party or President the people vote for, once elected, voters expect governments to get on with the job. In this modern era of transparency and accountability, they want clarity from those seeking high office: this is why we want to govern, here’s what we’ll do, and when we’ll do it by.
The excuse for not providing such clarity is that ‘events’ might get in the way and that being so upfront with the voters about what is – and isn’t – possible could prove electorally unpopular. And yet the ongoing preference for political fudge is counter-productive. It hampers the construction of good policy, diminishes the quality of legislation, and reduces a government’s ability to ‘level’ with the voters and get through difficult but necessary measures.
As a result of this attitude, governments dodge the biggest challenges and people lose confidence in the political system and its ability to deliver change. If this isn’t a recipe for extremism I don’t know what is.
It would also help if the executive had more respect for the legislature – and saw it as an extension of its relationship with the electorate. All too often those in government see legislators as a hindrance to be endured or sidelined. Good governance – in politics just as in business – means having enough confidence in your own product to sell it well. It also means understanding the people you are seeking to persuade and listening to constructive challenge whether from your own side or the opposition. If politicians can’t treat each other respectfully, why should voters believe that their views will be taken seriously? A wise government should be accommodating of changes that improve its legislation.
And it works the other way too. If a party in opposition does nothing but block a democratically elected government for the sake of it (when the government is effective in making its case and is prepared to listen to reasonable argument), then the only side it appears to be on is its own. There’s something in a changed approach for everyone, and it’s the sort of bold step that a government with a clear programme could take and an effective opposition would have no good reason to shy away from.
We must never forget that voters don’t hear much of what we say, but they notice what we do and the manner in which we do it. At election time, one of the reasons they don’t know who to believe is because of the way we behave. They are looking for recognisable human traits to help judge motive and, at the moment, we make it hard for them to find any. People like Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn have attracted voters as much for their perceived difference in style as for the policies they advocate. President Trump’s short-lived communications chief, Anthony Scaramucci, clearly had to go after his expletive-ridden rant, but he was on to something when he identified a preference for ‘front-stabbing’ over the back-stabbing that is common on Capitol Hill.
Whether or not all MPs can change their ways (and I think they have little choice), it is necessary for unelected peers in the Upper House to think hard about how they need to change too. The House of Lords is meant to be less partisan, not least because a quarter of its members are independent cross-bench peers. I would love to be able to say that MPs should take a leaf out of its book. But too often these days it displays the same vices as the Commons (without the virtues of being elected) and so undermines public confidence in performing its greatest strength: scrutinising contentious legislation in a thoughtful way. In our divided world we need more of that, not less, and can’t afford for the House of Lords to jeopardise what it’s most valued for.
The political class doesn’t like the results the voters keep delivering, but the voters aren’t the ones who need to change. Yes, we need to identify their concerns correctly and come up with sound solutions. But it’s not just what we do or promise that needs to change, it’s also the way we do it that needs to be different. The political system needs to work better so voters can be sure it’s operating in their interests. If we make it possible for them to judge us better, that will build confidence and makes challenging solutions easier to accept. But if we don’t do all these things, we should not be surprised if voters turn away from the established system and keep looking for buttons marked ‘disrupt’ to press.