Saving the political class from itself
by Dan Leighton
Demos has contributed to a timely pan think tank pamphlet on political reform orchestrated by the Institute for Public Policy Research. A Future for Politics aims to show some unity in difference and appeal to reformers across the parties not to lose the momentum for change created by the expenses scandal. To misquote Plato, scandal has become the mother of democratic invention. And the expenses scandal differs from other scandals in that it implicated not simply the governing party but the entire political class.
When a divide opens up between citizens and the political class, the vote is a fairly blunt instrument - you might be able to vote out rotten apples but you can’t vote out a rotten barrel. The most pertinent question to ask in wake of the scandal is not “how can we restore trust in parliament and our representatives?” but “how can we give citizens more control and oversight over parliament and their representatives?” As such, my contribution to the pamphlet proposed giving citizens the capacity to launch public accusations against politicians and officials suspected of malfeasance or corruption in between elections. In both ancient Athens and republican Rome, citizens had the right to launch public accusations against office holders. These were part of a range of systematic controls over the actions of any individual discharging a public function or handling public funds. In the modern era the vote has become synonomous with democracy itself, yet in the past direct mechanisms of citizen oversight and accountability in between and after elections were considered equally if not more important.
A new accusation system could replace, parallel or become part of the formal inquiries and commissions that are currently launched by politicians in to their own conduct, often in response to media pressure. At present these often exacerbate rather then diffuse distrust: the accused gets to select the judge and jury. Citizens could initiate public accusations through a petition - if a reasonably high threshold of public votes were reached, a jury of randomly selected citizens and a judge would be independently appointed. Public sanctions could range from highly symbolic black marks on the reputation of those deemed guilty to a modern equivalent of political ostracism, wherein politicians could be banned from taking any form of public office in the future.
Focusing on the question of direct citizen oversight over politicians reminds us of the central lesson of the expenses scandal: the political class need saving from themselves. At the launch of the pamphlet Michael Wills, Justice Minister, cautioned against replacing representative democracy with participatory democracy – while the latter has it’s place it should be used to strengthen rather than undermine the former. The logic of giving citizens direct powers of oversight is premised not on replacing representative democracy but making up for some of its structural defects. One of the most notable such defect concerns the domination of political representatives and their parties over the means by which they are held to account. The expenses debacle provides political reformers with an opportunity to ensure citizens go from being the occasional authorises of political power to being the owners and custodians of it.