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Trust in politics is dead: long live ‘wiki-politics’

If a museum were built to honour the ancestral political class, it would not look much different from the House of Commons. Its corridors are lined with portraits of the political greats and its staircases are adorned with old Vanity Fair caricatures. ‘Honourable members’ are still treated as if they were just that, with the right to jump to the top of the queue at canteens, bars and the post office. In other words: they live in a bubble of delusion, comfortably but perilously insulated from the growing hostility of the outside world.

6 February 2008

12:00 AM

6 February 2008

12:00 AM

If a museum were built to honour the ancestral political class, it would not look much different from the House of Commons. Its corridors are lined with portraits of the political greats and its staircases are adorned with old Vanity Fair caricatures. ‘Honourable members’ are still treated as if they were just that, with the right to jump to the top of the queue at canteens, bars and the post office. In other words: they live in a bubble of delusion, comfortably but perilously insulated from the growing hostility of the outside world.

If a museum were built to honour the ancestral political class, it would not look much different from the House of Commons. Its corridors are lined with portraits of the political greats and its staircases are adorned with old Vanity Fair caricatures. ‘Honourable members’ are still treated as if they were just that, with the right to jump to the top of the queue at canteens, bars and the post office. In other words: they live in a bubble of delusion, comfortably but perilously insulated from the growing hostility of the outside world.

Now, in the wake of the Derek Conway affair, some of that hostility is starting to seep under the mighty doors of the Palace of Westminster. Huddles of MPs gather to discuss tactics about the coming inquisition. David Cameron has given his frontbench team until the end of next month to register or remove any wives, sons or lovers who may be lurking suspiciously on the payroll. Gordon Brown is also ordering his MPs to name any family members they employ. Both are desperate to be seen as parliamentary sleazebusters rather than helpless victims.

Yet both know it could get much worse. Patrick McLoughlin, the Tory chief whip, has warned Mr Cameron there are more horror stories waiting to come out. Nick Clegg, anxious to play the holier-than-thou card, has been told it is unclear how many Liberal Democrat staffing arrangements would stand up to scrutiny. So an informal amnesty has been agreed: no party will go after the other on dodgy expenses. All parties are engaged in a bid for collective survival.

A generation ago, the Conway affair might not have caused such an uproar, or any at all. The argument would have run that the MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup was simply engaging in a bit of legitimate creative accounting: paying a family member over the odds to augment what he regarded as a low salary of £60,675. Yet times really have changed. The extent of the public fury will have been apparent to any MP who sampled opinion in his constituency last weekend — or who read the comments on blogs such as The Spectator’s Coffee House. Mr Conway has become the personification of a political class no longer simply regarded as suspect, but as guilty of outright venality. What was once mistrust for MPs is mutating into contempt.

There is only one winner from the Conway affair — and it is an enemy that Mr Cameron and Mr Brown recognise all too well, but would never openly acknowledge. Namely: the Abstention Party, the plague-on-all-your-houses party, the tribe bound together by a conviction that politicians are morally indistinguishable and generally contemptible. It is one of the largest forces in British politics, the reason why the last two elections have inspired the lowest turnout since universal suffrage was introduced in 1918.

Britain is now one of the few countries in the world where abstentions exceed votes for the government. Some MPs talk about voter apathy — implying that the problem is laziness — and wonder aloud about text voting. The more far-sighted MPs realise the problem is born of transparency. Since the Nolan report of 1994 and the reforms that have followed, the public has been able to see much more clearly what MPs and political parties are up to — and they are disgusted. The Conway affair has merely confirmed and strengthened existing public prejudices: it has simply exposed what some MPs still believe they should be able to get away with.

All the statistics suggest that the polity is in critical condition. Fewer Brits say they ‘tend to trust’ parliament than their counterparts in any country in western Europe apart from Italy, whose chaotic system has clocked up its 62nd postwar government. According to European Commission research, 40 per cent of Britons said they mistrusted parliament when Tony Blair took office — a figure which had risen to 60 per cent when he left. And the voting habit is dying out: most under-35s simply don’t do it.


Yet the problem is not that British politics is unusually sleazy: the reverse is still true by European standards. Trust in politics is collapsing because of the context in which political misdemeanours are coming to light. In one of the great cultural changes of our times, trust in all forms of authority is collapsing — and the House of Commons has neither recognised nor responded to a massive socio-economic trend which is flattening hierarchies in every field of human endeavour. The result is a Britain which no longer has a vacancy for a ruling class, and does not understand why MPs try to act as if they still constituted one.

The old order, from retail to the media, is struggling to survive in a world transformed by globalisation and the information revolution. Take the case of Marks & Spencer, which until the late 1990s could get away with just two fashion seasons a year. Its market dominance allowed it to dictate trends. Then upstarts like Gap, Monsoon and New Look came along, replete with cheap Asian clothes and 13 ‘seasons’ a year. The bottom fell out of M&S sales and it took years to recover — learning it now followed, rather than led, the market.

Newspapers face a huge challenge as their readers gain access to an abundance of rival news providers on every imaginable platform. Television viewers are no longer restricted by the old quadropoly but can pick and choose from scores of channels — and have the ability to record what they want to see, and never watch another advert again. The bewildering pace of change has forced everyone (outside politics) to adapt. Leaders in every conceivable field of commerce and culture have had to rethink strategy for a world where their customers can — and do — go anywhere in the world for a better deal.

But where can voters go? This is the huge (if misleading) advantage Westminster has always had. It’s notoriously difficult to set up a new party in the British system. For all the talk about political realignment, the largest trend is de-alignment: there is a steady fall in those identifying with a political party, joining one or donating to one. Again, this is not apathy. While party membership has plunged, National Trust membership has grown fivefold and RSPB membership tenfold. Civil engagement continues, especially in single issue groups, but the politics of representative democracy is increasingly seen as irrelevant, and ‘sleaze’ stories as proof of that irrelevance.

It did not take the Conway affair to bring resentment with the political class to boiling point. The independent Power Inquiry two years ago looked into the lack of political engagement and returned a devastating verdict. ‘There is now a well-ingrained popular view across the country that our political institutions and their politicians are failing, untrustworthy, and disconnected from the great mass of the British people,’ it said. ‘The last point cannot be stressed too strongly. We have been struck by just how wide and deep is the contempt felt for formal politics in Britain.’

And at the heart of this problem lies a huge global trend that has been better explained by new media experts such as Mark Earls, Seth Godin, Joe Trippi and Howard Rheingold than conventional political analysts. In his book Wikinomics, Don Tapscott summarises the issue thus: ‘Industrial-era titans are learning that the real revolution is just getting started. Except this time the competition is no longer their arch industry rivals; it’s the über-connected, amorphous mass of self-organised individuals that is gripping their economic needs firmly in one hand, and their economic destinies in the other.’

So it is with politics. If the public get fed up with one party, they are less likely to defect to its arch rival. No party is trusted to provide what people want. Vertical ties — which once bound company to customer or politician to voter — are being replaced by horizontal ties where people organise themselves in groups and take recommendations from each other. Nobody takes anybody’s word for anything anymore: the ‘trust me’ era was buried in the last century, replaced by the new phenomenon of ‘peer-to-peer’ recommendation.

The Blairites understood this to some extent. As one Cabinet member puts it, they saw a way of ‘smashing the Tories for a generation’ by recognising and embracing the principle of ‘empowerment’. The idea was not to ask for trust, but to declare their trust in the public by handing back power over schools and hospitals. But Blair left office having made scant progress: a few dozen city academies and a fledgling health reform agenda easily squashed by his successor.

Mr Brown has long recognised, and worried about, the pernicious trend of anti-politics. But rather than dismantle state machinery, as he suspected Blair was trying to do, he claimed that he would ‘modernise’ it. And if politicians have lost the trust of the public, he would bring in outsiders to add their credentials to the process. We had the Wanless Report, written by Derek Wanless, ex-NatWest chief, who lent his credibility to Mr Brown’s original opinion: namely, that the NHS needed more money. Industrial knights were then summoned to write reports on skills, transport and pensions.

But the most ambitious part of Mr Brown’s plan for the consumer age is to embark on a massive programme of data sharing between government departments. By collating vast amounts of information, the Prime Minister seeks to create a ‘personalised’ service for public-service users. So the one-size-fits-all approach will be replaced with a notionally tailor-made service. Mr Brown believes that a properly resourced and digitised bureaucracy can do what Mr Blair claimed could only be done by the market.

The wider implications of Mr Brown’s ‘personalisation’ programme are powerfully outlined in a pamphlet by Jill Kirby of the Centre for Policy Studies. The belief at the heart of the Brown strategy, she says, is ‘that there is no need to break down the monolithic structures of Whitehall-managed public services because information technology will provide the substitute for personal contact’. Mr Blair’s stillborn answer to the frustration of the voter was to give them power. Mr Brown hopes to give them a better, computer-assisted service. In internet jargon, this is the difference between a Web 2.0 solution (real devolution achieved by disruptive technology) and an old Web 1.0 answer (computers making old systems a bit more efficient).

In any case: who now will trust Whitehall technology? As the government’s Information Sharing Vision Statement put it 18 months ago, it is ‘important that people are confident that their personal data is kept safe and secure’. After 25 million records were lost by HM Revenue & Customers last November, there is, to put it mildly, no such confidence. The path towards this super-Whitehall computer, Gordon’s very own Deep Thought, is likely to be strewn with many data loss calamities. And each would sink faith in government further still.

The Cameroons need no instruction about the latest marketing trends. David Cameron himself uses internet jargon (‘Politics 2.0’) to describe a government which enables rather than provides. George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, talks eloquently about how the demand for empowerment meshes with the true mantras of modern Conservativism (‘trust people, share responsibility’). But both have trouble expressing these philosophical notions accessibly — that is, making clear what possible practical use all this would be to the voter.

One shadow Cabinet member puts it this way: ‘There’s a logic in saying, “We’ll give you the powers, lucky people, you fix it for yourself”, but people expect governments to act. We have a manifesto to fill. But if people don’t trust politicians to improve things, what can an opposition do?’ The troubling paradox is that voters despise politicians, but are not yet ready to wean themselves off the postwar state. The big task for the Cameroons is to persuade the public that this is possible: that ‘wiki-politics’, where each of us has true control over our local destinies, could be a reality.

Meanwhile, it is sobering to consider that the task of cleaning parliament’s reputation falls to Michael Martin, who as Speaker has already faced questions over his £50,000 air-travel costs and £4,280 taxi bill for his wife Mary. The autumn timetable he suggests for his inquiry into the expenses fiasco shows a continuation of the denial in which the House of Commons has specialised for decades. Until last week, the favourite to succeed him was Mr Conway. His downfall should have persuaded MPs that it is time to change the script, and have someone of Frank Field’s honesty and stature in the chair. For whoever comes after Mr Martin will have a stark mission: to save the House of Commons from itself.


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