Obama-style activism in Britain
The Big Issue, January 2009
By Heather Brooke
Are British people disengaged with politics? I don’t think so. It’s simply that the man in the street is relatively impotent in the British political system, whereas in the US, where politics is much more open and competitive, politicians must be responsive to the electorate or face imminent extinction.
There aren’t enough avenues for change in British politics and the few that there are rely on patronage more than merit; who you know rather than what you know and particularly what school you attended. Someone like Barack Obama would have zero chance of being selected as an MP in this country, let alone get to the leadership. MP selection isn’t voted on by the people, nor even the party, but a handful of party apparatchiks. Until the system of selecting candidates changes, we have only the illusion of choice.
But there are ‘green shoots’ of hope. In the same week the press was saturated with coverage of Obama’s inauguration, another event received substantially less publicity though it involved our very own elected officials. On January 22nd, MPs planned to exempt their expenses from the Freedom of Information Act.
I fought a 3-year legal battle for transparency of MPs’ expenses. In my High Court victory in May 2008, the judges ruled that transparency in this matter was of the most vital public interest and essential to the health of UK democracy. So what do our highest elected officials do? They lie numerous times about the date they will publish these claims and then sneakily slip in a Statutory Instrument that allows them to keep their expenses secret without having a full debate.
Every other citizen in this country must keep receipts for expenses claimed for five years or they are in breach of HM Revenue and Customs rules. Yet our MPs are intent on creating for themselves a privileged arena where they are exempt from the laws they force the rest of us to live under.
It was only due to the sort of Obama-style grass-roots campaigning that this rot was stopped and a last-minute u-turn was made by Gordon Brown on Wednesday (January 21) shelved the law. Groups such as Theyworkforyou.com, Unlock Democracy, Taxpayers Alliance and other activists spread the word. Thousands joined a Facebook protest group, or rang or wrote to their MPs expressing their outrage.
Very occasionally, we can and do make a difference and this was one of those times. But it’s worth noting that this activism completely circumvented traditional politics. In the minds of most citizens the British Parliamentary system is archaic, elitist and woefully out of touch. MPs must open up and make themselves relevant again to their constituents. If they don’t, then the only people they have to blame for voter disengagement, is themselves.
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