Brexit, broken Britain and the case for a Citizens’ Convention on Democracy

  • November 11, 2019 11:21
  • Richard Askwith

ONLY one issue matters right now in British politics: Brexit. That’s what political insiders tell us – and when have they ever been wrong?

Yet there is an alternative view. The question that really matters is what we’re going to do, after 12 December, to fix our broken system of parliamentary democracy.

The warning signs are obvious. Our voting system guarantees that, whoever ends up in Downing Street, most voters will consider the election result a travesty. The ill-considered framing of the 2016 referendum ensures that, whatever long-term outcome we ultimately achieve with Brexit, most people will feel cheated by it. 

These are not temporary dissatisfactions. Over the past decade, confidence in the UK’s political institutions has evaporated. Half the electorate feel that none of the main parties cares about people like them; 47 per cent feel that they have no voice at all in national decision-making; 63 per cent feel that the system is “rigged” to the advantage of the rich and powerful. A £2bn-a-year lobbying industry makes it hard to argue that they’re wrong; as does the obvious social and economic gulf between our legislators in Westminster and most of those they are supposed to represent. (The House of Lords, in particular, is no more representative than the Garrick Club.) 

Even within the political class, there’s a growing recognition that the system is breaking down. Populists lie with shameless abandon, and thrive; old taboos against political violence and intimidation have shattered. Politicians are despised even more than journalists. In Ipsos-MORI’s authoritative Veracity Index, the political profession scored a trust rating of just 17 per cent – that’s less than half the score for bankers. 

It’s not just that people are tired of politicians – although they are. The system itself is losing their consent. Roughly half of the electorate think we need a strong leader who is prepared to break rules, and that we would be better governed if parliament’s powers were reduced. A few fogeys still venerate our constitution, yet the events of the past few months have made it alarmingly clear that it isn’t worth the paper it isn’t written on. We can’t even agree if we’re a direct democracy or a representative democracy.

There’s an obvious solution: reform. And there’s an obvious time to do it: now. 

In normal times, significant political reform is impossible. That’s the first rule of politics: those with the power to make reform happen are those for whom the unreformed system works. So nothing much changes, and the electorate becomes apathetically resigned to the status quo.

But these are nasty, abnormal times, which offer opportunity as well as danger. It is hard (although sadly not impossible) to imagine an incoming government so irresponsible as to leave the UK’s democratic crisis unaddressed. Urgent repairs, commanding genuine popular support, are a matter of simple self-interest for anyone involved in parliamentary politics.

In normal times, of course, there is also a second rule of politics: significant reform is impossible. We can agree easily enough that the old needs to be replaced. But as soon as we start trying to define a bold new alternative, we bicker ourselves to a stalemate. Just look at the turgid history of attempts to reform the electoral system or the Lords. Hence our default position of muddling on as we are.

Today, however, those first two rules of politics are arguably being superseded by a third and more fundamental rule: no democratic system of government can survive without the relatively wholehearted consent of the governed.

This principle was at the heart of my book, People Power, which Biteback published nearly two years ago as part of its “Provocations” series. People Power predicted and dissected today’s disastrous “People vs. Parliament” conflict and argued that the simplest way to resolve it was to introduce an element of direct democracy into parliament itself. Specifically, I suggested that our current House of Lords – a democratic laughing-stock steeped in privilege and patronage – should be replaced, or at least supplemented, by an upper chamber chosen by sortition. In other words, the legislators in our upper chamber should be “people’s peers”: a small, representative sample of the general population, selected by lot from the electoral roll. It sounds far-fetched (although Alex Burghardt MP, having read it for the BBC’s Daily Politics, admitted that “It’s not as crazy as it sounds”). My counter-argument, which sounds glib but is actually deadly serious, is that it is a lot less far-fetched than imagining that parliament can continue without such radical reform.

Two years on, the crisis in politics has deepened – and Lords reform is at the top of no one’s agenda. Yet reform of some kind is increasingly recognised as an urgent necessity; and the idea of giving randomly chosen citizens a central role in the process has become almost mainstream.

When Lisa Nandy and Stella Creasy – Labour MPs supporting Leave and Remain respectively – proposed a randomly-chosen citizens’ assembly to detoxify the Brexit debate and build a consensus on what to do next, their proposal drew support from right across the political spectrum, from Gordon Brown to Rory Stewart, the Financial Times to the Guardian, the Electoral Reform Society to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

More recently, a cross-party grouping including Vince Cable, Caroline Lucas, Dominic Grieve, Tom Watson and David Davis has backed plans for a randomly-selected Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy, to deliberate on behalf of the entire electorate over a two-year period and agree the basis of a new UK constitution.

The design and processes of this assembly have been exhaustively planned by an expert team led from the Centre for British Politics and Government at King’s College London (with support from the Policy Institute at King’s). The big outstanding question is how much backing – if any – a future Government will give it and, crucially, what weight will be attached to its findings. This month, around 80 civil society groups came together to launch a campaign called Up To Us, calling for “a new pact between the citizen and the state”. The aim is to build mass support for the idea of the Convention, so that parties begin to feel that backing it will be a vote-winner. 

I struggle to see how anyone could object to this plan, which transcends party politics. If parliamentary democracy is to have a future in the UK, the ground rules need to be agreed and written down; and they cannot be meaningfully agreed unless the entire electorate feels that its views and interests have been consulted. That’s why the principle of a deliberative assembly that’s a representative sample of the electorate is so powerful: it is visibly fair.

If the proposed Citizens’ Convention does take off, it may or may not give serious thought to the idea of incorporating sortition as a permanent feature of parliament, as proposed in People Power. I like to think that it might, but perhaps that’s wishful thinking.

On the other hand, the case for the Convention itself – a randomly-chosen one-off assembly about the ground rules of democracy – seems irresistible. If you haven’t yet got your head round the idea, I urge you to follow some of the links in this post; and to consider supporting the Up To Us campaign. 

The high-risk alternative is to carry on as we are.

___

People Power: remaking Parliament for the populist age”, by Richard Askwith, is published in Biteback’s Provocations series (£10)

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The Great Election Sale

  • November 04, 2019 09:00
  • Vicky Jessop

And that, as they say, is that. After months of back and forth, of deliberations and heated debates, we are now due for our first December election since 1923. Out with Brexit, and in with by-elections- at least for the time being.

However, the outcome of this election has never looked less certain. Brexit will dominate the next month as it has the past few years, and the end result is just as likely to be a landslide election for the Conservative Party as it is for the Liberal Democrats. What to do? How to prepare?

Fortunately, we are a political publishing company, and so we have access to a great back catalogue of election-themed books. If you’re looking for some pointers on how some of the best analytical minds think the votes might stack up, or if you’re looking to learn from the lessons of Theresa May’s ill-fated 2017 Election, then you’ve come to the right place.

For the next two weeks, all of the books below will cost only £5 each- and if you order more than £20, you’ll get free postage.

Happy browsing!

 

Our top picks

 

 

Sex, Lies and Politics, ed. Philip Cowley and Rob Ford

101 Ways to Win an Election, by Mark Pack and Edward Maxfield

The Big Book of Boris, by Iain Dale and Jakub Szweda

 

 

 

 

 

Our how-to guides

 

How to win a Marginal Seat, by Gavin Barwell

How to be an MP, by Paul Flynn

How to be a Minister, by John Hutton and Leigh Lewis

How to be Government Whip, by Helen Jones

How to be a Parliamentary Researcher, by Robert Dale

How to be a Civil Servant, by Martin Stanley

How to be a Spin Doctor, by Paul Richards

 

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More political know-how

Punch and Judy Politics, by Ayesha Hazarika

Fighters and Quitters, by Theo Barclay

The Art of Lobbying, by Darcy Nicole

Betting the House, by Tim Ross and Tom McTague

People Power, by Richard Askwith

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Looking for some Hallowe'en Inspiration?

  • October 28, 2019 13:58
  • Vicky Jessop

As Hallowe’en draws closer, it’s only right that we dig into our back catalogue for some spooky reads to delve into. Read on for a selection of weird and wonderful tales about graves and grave tidings…

 

 

 

Finding the Plot: 100 Graves to Visit Before You Die by Ann Treneman

Essential reading for those not yet dead, this tour of 100 graves in Britain explores the subterranean actors, painters, poets and victims of gruesome crimes. Bill Bryson claimed it was the ‘most fun I have ever had with dead bodies’. Not only a fascinating travelogue, this part biography, part social history provides insight into the British rituals associated with death.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grave Tidings: An Anthology of Famous Last Words by Paul Berra

‘In the midst of life, we are in death’, this book begins. The exclamations of those in close proximity to death seem to reflect this, sometimes with grace and wit, and often with irony and despair. These figures – made famous in life as in death – certainly did not choke on their final utterances.

 

 

 

And for some real-life spooky…

 

 

Cleaning Up the Mess: After the MP’s Expenses Scandal, by Ian Kennedy

We couldn’t resist a political entry, and here it is. In 2009, news broke that MPs had been claiming taxpayers’ money to pay for such excesses as a floating duck-house, moat-cleaning services and 550 sacks of manure. The revelations shook Westminster and compromised the voters’ trust- and ten years on, Ian Kennedy discuses his time as chairman of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), cleaning up the mess that politicians had left behind.

 

 

 

Spooky reads not taking your fancy? Don’t worry: we’ve got something for everybody. Simply visit our New Releases page to find out more…

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A day in the life of Jordan Wylie

  • October 18, 2019 12:00
  • Vicky Jessop

Jordan Wylie is a busy man. On top of being the first man to row the most dangerous shipping strait in the world- between Djibouti and Yemen- he’s also found time to write a book (Running for My Life, out soon) and squeeze in a day job as a hunter on Channel 4’s shows Hunted and Celebrity Hunted. As Celebrity Hunted takes to our screens, we found time to catch up with Jordan and ask him some questions about what his days are like on set.

 

Becoming a hunter

 

Working for Hunted has definitely been a whirlwind, but it lets me put the skills I learnt in the military to good use. I spent many years in an armoured close reconnaissance troop and all my operational experience was in an intelligence role: as a result, I got to do lots of training in surveillance, target acquisition and tactical questioning at the defence intelligence centre at a place called Chicksands in Bedfordshire. I also served two tours of Iraq as a Prisoner Handler and Tactical Questioner, which was an incredibly interesting and rewarding responsibility. Essentially my job was to extract information from the bad guys that we could then use to combat terrorist operations in my area of operations.

 

After I left the military, I also did a BA and then an MA in Security & Risk with Criminology, so this kind of enhanced my CV too. A friend of mine in the security industry asked if I was interested in joining the Hunted cast and I went for a couple of interviews. I had to interrogate the producers a little bit, and next thing you know, I was on Channel 4!

 

Life on set

 

Without giving all our trade secrets away, I can certainly say that we work extremely long hours carrying out our investigations and following up lines of enquiries tracking people down! We live in hotels for the whole filming period and we never know which hotel until the last minute, as we are of course running around the UK chasing fugitives. It really does depend where they have headed too (or where ‘we think’ they have anyway…). We also like to get some physical training in too whilst we are on the move and it’s a bit of a lottery with regards to hotel facilities so running and plenty of body weight exercises in our rooms is the usual procedure.

 

Every day really is different which is what makes it so much fun filming the show. The producers encourage creativity and innovation on a show like Hunted which I feel will really shine through in the new series. We have so many assets at our disposal that we can use such as dog units, helicopters, drones and undercover operatives- and we are always trying to use deception and social engineering to disrupt the fugitives’ networks.

 

The most rewarding part of the day, though, is most definitely capturing a fugitive! We genuinely work extremely hard and although I’m there more as a bit of an action man that enjoys the ribs, helicopters, climbing, chasing and so on, most of my colleagues are leading experts in their fields and some are still serving in government units. I learnt so much from these people and it’s a real privilege to work alongside the UK’s elite police, military and security services personnel.

 

Winding down…

 

At the end of the day, I usually wind down with a G&T (always a Hendricks with Cucumber) with my team- although we do like to order a cheeky bottle champagne if we get a capture that day!

 

Catch Jordan Wylie on Channel 4’s Celebrity Hunted on Sundays at 9pm, and pre-order his book, Running for My Life, on Amazon now!

 

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Peter Brookes: life as a cartoonist

  • October 11, 2019 16:11
  • Vicky Jessop

Peter Brookes has made a career out of skewering the rich and famous. From the Prime Minister to backbench MPs, his hilarious sketches have graced The Times for years, resulting in several art exhibitions and ten books, the latest of which- Critical Times- was published by Biteback at the start of this month.

But how did he become a cartoonist? And who are his favourite subjects to draw? We sat down to find out more about the man behind the drawings.

How did you become a cartoonist?

I was recruited by the New Statesman to deputise for Nicholas Garland when he was on holiday, in the early 70s, shortly after leaving art college. I’d always had the interest, but never the confidence, to pursue political cartooning. I remained an illustrator for another ten years or so before joining The Times as their political cartoonist. But it wasn’t until 1992 that I took this up full time.

What’s the best/ your favourite cartoon that you’ve ever drawn?

I think it was probably the cartoon I drew during the Tory leadership race after Cameron resigned in 2016 following the EU Referendum. Boris Johnson was about to announce his candidature, when Michael Gove (who was running his campaign) decided to stand against him. It was a highly charged, outrageously disloyal (on Gove’s part) moment, and one he was to regret, as he was soundly defeated as a result. Politics, red in tooth and claw. I drew Gove stabbing Johnson in the back; the blade goes straight through and it stabs him in the front.

Who’s your favourite politician to draw?

There are quite a few! Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, Diane Abbott, Corbyn, Milne, Farage, Trump... usually the ones for whom I have the most contempt.

What do you like most about being a cartoonist?

I most like the freedom I’m given to air my political grievances and prejudices on half a page in The Times four days a week! And I masochistically enjoy the process of it all, whereby I agonisingly struggle daily with ideas until I find that Eureka moment... if I’m lucky. It’s an immense privilege.

What’s one thing you hope people will take away from your book?

 After five books, over ten years, I hope most of all that people might take away the sense that, unlike our current politics, I’m not in terminal decline! And despite the whole sorry mess we’re in, I hope people can, along with me, laugh at it all. Albeit bleakly!

Thanks Peter!

Peter Brookes’ new book, Critical Times, is out now. Shop for it here on Amazon and Waterstones, or catch him at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in 12th October.

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