Saturday, December 28, 2013
We live in the digital age but our politics is still analogue. No wonder voters are disillusioned
Politics matters. It always has and always will. It has always been a sham to say that voters not voting is due to disinterest or boredom. Yesterday’s Guardian/ICM poll explains exactly what lies behind voter “apathy”. It is disillusionment. It is disengagement. More than anything it is anger.
That is the single word that respondents cited as the best description of how they feel about politics. Twenty-five per cent said “bored”, 16% “respectful” and just 2% “inspired”. Former minister Chloe Smith was right to highlight the generation divide developing in British politics between young and old, but there is also a wide perception – 46% of poll respondents – who believe “MPs are just on the take”, largely as a result of the MPs’ expenses scandal. As the person who forced MPs to digitise and publish their expenses, I fear that disengagement will get worse until politicians change their actions and not just their rhetoric.
The expenses scandal did nothing more than allow the public to see reality as it is, not the fairytale that was previously presented. Yet political institutions have failed to address the fundamental problems: the system remains elitist, centralised and secretive. Power is still an alibi for avoiding responsibility while the “little people” bear the brunt of ever more intrusive surveillance, on-the-spot fines, increasing laws and regulations.
Expectations for democracy are rising, not just in Britain but globally. People in countries around the world are demanding to have a say in the way power is exercised. To do that they need access to information because the adage that information is power is true. The democratisation of information is the second stage of the Enlightenment. It’s what I call the Information Enlightenment.
Increasingly, there are many decisions that must now be made as a whole planet – about climate, about resources, about financial systems. To make these decisions we need information. Lots of it. We have a financial system that is global and the relations complex. It’s the same with the environment. It is no longer possible for any one person or even one organisation to process all this information, especially if they’re doing so in a top-down, centralised, secretive hierarchy, as Whitehall does, for instance.
So across many sectors we’re seeing a move towards fully connected systems that are open, collaborative and share information. This is how the best decisions are made. However, there is one sector that resolutely refuses to adapt. Politics – the system by which power is organised and exercised. We would expect people’s changing expectations of power to be reflected in our democracies. Instead we have an analogue political system trying to deny the realities of the digital age. Officials still take the view that they know what’s best for the rest.
Democracies should be made up of an informed electorate but currently we have neither enough information nor a meaningful vote. Voting for our MPs and councillors once every five years isn’t enough – and people know it. The act of voting has been rendered decorative rather than functional.
One of the biggest problems is the selection process. In the current setup, people gain political power not through merit but most often because they have sucked up to the right powerful people. Deference and patronage still rule the day: politicians and public servants gain and maintain their power not by doing their jobs well, or even competently, but by staying in favour with those who appoint them.
This has to change. It is the people who give public servants their power and so it must be to the people to whom public servants are accountable. Directly and forthrightly – with no middlemen in between.