Party politics needs mending and quickly | Observer editorial

We need a long hard look at the way we ‘do’ parliamentary politics. Disengagement and disillusion are dangerous

On Thursday, BBC1’s Panorama will screen undercover footage of Tory MP Patrick Mercer allegedly agreeing to take £4,000 to lobby on behalf of business interests from Fiji. Mr Mercer accepted the money from a fake company, in a sting jointly organised by Panorama and the Daily Telegraph. The MP has yet to declare the amount, although in recent months he has tabled five questions in the Commons, including one on Fiji’s improved human rights record. While this is an issue of real concern, it is arguably not at the forefront of the minds of Mr Mercer’s Newark constituents. The MP has resigned the party whip and said he will not stand in the next general election. It is a scandal, we are told, that may yet include others, but it is hardly a surprise.

Certainly not to David Cameron. In the wake of the furore around MPs’ expenses three years ago, he predicted exactly what has now occurred. Mr Cameron recognised cash for questions as part of our “broken politics”. He promised a statutory lobbying register and a right to recall – or dismiss – MPs. Neither has materialised. Reparation for the Conservative voters of Newark will not be swift. For the next two years, they will be represented by Mr Mercer, sitting as an independent, whether they like it or not, since they have no powers to boot out their representative: so much for democracy.

In 1997, the Labour government overhauled the British constitution. Reforms included devolved tiers of government, the Human Rights Act and directly elected mayors. Greater accountability and transparency also came, for instance, via the Freedom of Information Act. Labour’s manifesto promised the reforms would rebuild the “bond of trust between government and the people. That is the only way democracy can flourish.” Fifteen years on, democracy, far from flourishing, is sicklier than ever. Symptoms include low turnout, lacklustre party leaders and falling party membership (the RSPB has more members than the three main parties combined).

More precisely, while polls indicate democracy has strong support, Westminster politics faces an alarming crisis of legitimacy. A coalition that nobody voted for may be followed by a Labour “victory” in 2015 with only 35% of the vote. Dr Ruth Fox of the Hansard Society, a charity that promotes greater public engagement in politics, says that among current problems, MPs are too white, too male and over-representative of a privileged metropolitan elite. Dr Fox adds that voters are less concerned with the issue of trust and more by Westminster’s lack of efficacy and accountability. The system is too centralised, bureaucratic, too “top down”. Her research indicates that the reform agenda on offer from the political elite, including fixed-term parliaments, has little resonance with voters. It’s not just the economy that’s flatlining – it’s Westminster democracy too. So what’s to be done?

The 1950s model of an 80%-plus turn out for Labour and Conservative, each drawing on loyal voters, is long gone and the political map is about to become yet more complicated. Last week, Ukip registered its highest position yet in the opinion polls, with 22%. Tonight on Channel 4, Paul Nuttall, Ukip’s deputy leader, will be “gunning for Labour”, when he talks to working-class voters about why they are defecting. However, the paradox of a four-party system is that it is bound to stoke even greater resentment. So, for instance, in the county council elections, a staunch Tory ward in Mr Cameron’s backyard, Witney South and Central, was won by Labour, the Conservative vote having been split by Ukip. That is hardly an exercise in representative democracy. Ukip’s arrival throws a completely different spanner in the already faulty works.

According to the Hansard Society’s 2010 audit of political engagement, 54% of people said they were certain to vote in a general election; now that stands at 41%. The recent election for police commissioners saw a dismal 15% turnout. Politics professor Matthew Flinders of Sheffield University says this “democratic drift” is because “the old rules do not appear to suit the new game, and yet the … old rules still apply”. So what exactly is this new game? According to the Hansard Society, civic engagement – “direct democracy” – is healthy. The public are far from apathetic. Last week, for instance, it was announced that trade union membership had increased for the first time in years, up by 59,000 to 6.5m. Far from its 13m peak, but lessons are being learned. “We have to let go,” says TUC national organiser Carl Roper. “We have to work with members, not tell them what to do.”

Arguably what has given an extra charge is the fight to assert values that counter, for instance, the behaviour revealed in phone hacking, tax avoidance and the avarice of the 1%. On 22 June, for example, the People’s Assembly takes place in London, supported by unions, charities, individuals and new alliances on the left urging an alternative economic strategy. Preparatory meetings have attracted hundreds. Enterprises such as Citizens UK and Tessy Britton’s Social Spaces work to revive community action while 38 Degrees, with its online e-petitions on issues such the bedroom tax, has attracted 1.5 million members. Social media sites have opened doors. Italian comedian Beppe Grillo recognised the extent of this “invisible revolution”: on Facebook, Twitter and the internet, he won 25% of the vote for his Five Star Movement in the Italian elections earlier this year. Already, however, support has dwindled. The “new game” has the capacity to engage, but in a world of fluid networks, staying power may be harder to achieve.

For Labour, American Arne Graf is now organising at the grassroots, but the left in particular likes centralised bureaucracies and may find it hard to “let go”, even to save its own skin. Another challenge is that while localism and puzzling through issues pragmatically with a quick e-petition – rather than slipping into orthodox left and right positions – have advantages, a national overview and ideology matter.

So how do we “do” parliamentary politics in the 21st century? Open primaries are one suggestion. In Wales, the Silk commission is pondering change; Scotland’s forthcoming referendum might spawn innovation. Contrary to popular opinion, however, not all politicians are the same. Some MPs do sterling work. How that is defined and evaluated should be part of negotiations around change and salary increases.

Political disengagement feeds the extreme right. Today, even as voters have become more complex, individualistic, pluralistic and self-determining, party politics has atrophied. Therein lies an exciting challenge – and a real and profound danger. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds