It's easy to be cynical about 'better government' campaigns. Little ever seems to change, and the only interests that appear to matter are those of the political elite. Why would those in power want to change a system that they control?
But, as the TPA itself is testament, campaigns can make waves, forcing items up the agenda. Writing off the potential impact of political groups really would doom us to the vested interests. People have to get involved, shout a little, embrace the notion of "populism". After all, this is supposed to be a democracy.
Therefore I encourage you to visit the website of Power2010 - www.power2010.org.uk - a new campaign (sponsored by the Joseph Rowntree Trust) which looks to force real, substantive change onto the agenda before next year's general election. Changes to the way we select candidates for the House of Commons, hold our representatives to account, effect the legislative process. Changes to the UK's relationship with Europe, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It's an opportunity for you to push for those changes that you think important.
The campaign is split into various stages, and until Monday night they are looking for people to contribute ideas. You can do so by going to http://power2010.org.uk/yourideas. Their instructions will walk you through how to make your suggestion.
(From the Power2010 website:) "All ideas will then be sent to a Citizens Convention in early January where around 200 randomly selected citizens from all regions and demographics will filter out the weak and ill supported ideas to leave a shortlist of 20-30 top reforms. These ideas will then be opened to a public debate and vote with the 5 most popular becoming the POWER2010 Pledge - and forming the backbone of a national campaign at the next election to change politics for good."
As I wrote above, until Monday night they are still looking for raw ideas. We (the TPA) will be making two suggestions, adding to the many good ideas already made by others contributors:
- Give voters the power of recall over MPs. Political parties shouldn’t be able to make their own minds up about what is legitimate and what should warrant the sack. There is no reason why we couldn’t replicate the “recall provision” that exists in many US states over here. If 25% of those who voted in a constituency at the last election signed a petition calling for their MP to go, that could trigger a by-election where they had to defend their seat against all comers. When this sort of reform is proposed, defenders of the status quo conjure up nightmares of endless, expensive by-elections that will exhaust the patience and pocket book of the electorate. In reality, that won’t happen. California requires just 12% of those who voted in the last election to sign a petition to trigger a recall, yet they recalled a governor for the first time in 2003, since the provision was introduced in 1911. Recalls are rare but important. If they were allowed right now, the public would be able to kick out those MPs who have let them down. Beyond that, MPs might not behave so badly if they knew that they would face the ignominy of a recall if they stepped out of line.
- Increase transparency over public spending: One of greatest achievements of the Labour Government has been the Freedom of Information Act. Single-handedly this imperfect law has revolutionised the public's relationship with public authorities. But the UK still has a long way to go in terms of transparency, and there remains a risk that recent gains may be undermined. That risk is embodied by the Government's less than wholehearted support for the Information Commissioner. Despite record numbers of complaints and appeals, and the public's appetite for greater transparency, the Commissioner's Office has actually seen its funding cut in recent years. Funding for the Office should come directly from Parliament, with not Government; at the moment, the Ministry of Justice controls funding, and it is itself one the worst offenders when it comes to breaking FoI law. A future Government should however extend and strengthen the law, building in much stronger penalties for failing to comply, or for the provision of inaccurate information. Too many authorities still see the FoI Act as a burden to borne; it must be made to be at the centre of their contract with the public.
Beyond the FoI Act, there are reforms that would go a long way to returning ownership of public spending back the people who pay for it. In the United States for instance, usaspending.gov enables you to see every item of federal expenditure (to the nearest million dollars). It's not perfect, but it will get steadily better as time goes on. Nor is it expensive to set up, and once the system is in place it is very cheap to maintain. The UK Government already has all this data in IT system called COINS. At a local level, some councils are pioneering such transparency over their spending, most notably in Windsor and Maidenhead. If people are interested in improving the public debate over public spending, the establishment of such a system must be their number one priority.
People may agree with both, one or neither of the above. The idea of Power2010 is to get you to contribute your ideas though, and while we would appreciate your support for our suggestions when it comes to the vote, what is more important is that you get involved, showing your support to whichever ideas you most believe in. We will be supporting many of the ideas already put forward. Here's the website once more - www.power2010.org.uk/home .
We'll keep you up to the campaign here on the Better Government blog.