Sunday, June 10, 2007

 

Ken's Proposals Excellent but will they Reduce Political Apathy?

Ken Clarke's Democracy Task Force's proposals come at just the right time to influence both his own party and, arguably, the plans of the incoming PM. I think there are good grounds for thinking, along with Clarke, that parliament needs to be strengthened against a constantly aggrandising executive. Because the UK executive is formed out of the legislature it is easy for the former to dominate parliament; in the USA both arms of government are elected separately and so the legislature cannot be so easily ignored or over-ridden. Blair has ignored parliament(though it should not be forgotten that he did allow a debate before the Iraq War and has been one of the outstanding parliamentarians of his era).

Ken suggests a whole battery of measures to strengthen the institution including: more resources and powers for select committees to make them more like Congressional ones; prior defence of spending decisions; more exposure of the PM to cross examination; and more power for MPs to decide what will be debated. In addition he urges that once a given number sign an online petition, that parliament be obliged to debate and vote on the question. In his thoughtful article today Henry Porter praises the report and urges:

Let's have more private member's bills. Let's see select committee chairmen bring their reports to the chamber for debate. Let's have more debate. More argument. More cross-party groups. More goddam life. Anything is better than the chamber of the living dead that this shallow, unread 'modernising' regime created.

In addition to parliament Ken calls for a renewal of Cabinet government with the No 10 'sofa' thrown on the skip. All good stuff, but I wonder two things. Firstly, will Gordon Brown, despite his nods in the direction of constitutional change, really create a rod for his own back by strengthening parliament? Parties always promise to empower the people and always find implementing their policies more important once in power.

Secondly, Ken's group was set up to 'restore power to the people' and 'restore trust in politics'. Will the alarming falls in election turnout be reversed by such a programme of political change? Some commentators claim apathy will disappear as soon as we have a proper contest between two evenly matched parties fighting about real issues. I'm not so sure and tend to the(depressing) view supported by the work of the US political scientist, Robert Putnam, that apathy is more a characteristic of a modern society which is increasingly withdrawing from the public sphere into a private one surrounded by friends and family, material goods and hours and hours of television.

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