For centuries Westminster has been symbolic of the country’s decision making power. But it has always been more complicated than that – all power doesn’t lie here and it never has.
The United Kingdom is governed by a collaboration between politicians (MPs & Lords), political parties, civil servants, elites in business, academia and finance with the media and others playing their part plus of course monarchy being a key constitutional plank. None could rule alone, there has been powerful symbiosis between these and other groups.
For most of our democratic history there was essentially a duopoly between two main political parties, most recently Tories and Labour essentially taking turns over who would be in charge.
Meanwhile society has been undergoing massive changes. First expansion of the franchise from just the landed gentry to include eventually all men and women 18 and over. Mass education, huge increases in university attendance, loss of deference, mass broadcast media, sexual liberation, technology and the internet etc
The demos, the people of our democracy, are unrecognisable to those from 50 or 100 years ago. More connected, more diverse but less trusting and respectful of authority.
Perhaps as a result of this support and membership for the big two parties has been in essential long term decline as has been voter turnout at elections.
But people aren’t apathetic, they are passionately supporting issues close to their heart whether it is the environment, housing, sports, transport – you name it there is a group for it. Through social media, petitions and protest people are still active, just less and less through party politics.
This has led to the membership of political parties becoming less and less reflective of wider society. And society has become ever more diverse so it all things being equal it is getting ever harder to represent our cities, towns, villages and hamlets. But it gets harder when the committed few still clinging to party membership are becoming more absolutist, expecting those views in the politicians they help get elected, whilst society is more mixed and diverse in its thinking.
Members of Parliament have always, and by design, faced tensions between their duty representing their constituencies and needing to reflecting the positions of their parties. Mix into this that quite rightly their minds may be changed by what they hear and learn through meetings and debates in Westminster itself.
With these tensions at play it is impossible for everyone to be happy with the decisions an MP makes. Our system is a representative one, whereby MPs are sent to represent a constituency and a party, but to use their best judgement on the issues before them. They aren’t delegates sent to vote the way their residents or party members tell them to. This is a vital and important distinction. Why?
Because it means we should be electing people for their good judgement first and foremost. Sadly this is not often the top issue come election time, we end up talking about parties and their leaders. But that isn’t who we elect in a general election, it’s our local representative.
Of course which party they are in has implications for who is likely to form the next government, but as we know, a new Prime Minister can be chosen by the largest party without a new general election.
So what can we do to help improve the state of British politics? First and foremost help your MPs to get better informed. If you are able to inform them of an issue and your views then most MPs would welcome that. Clear and useful new information on draft law or key issue is something every MP I’ve ever met has welcomed. You can also get active, join a group like Chorus or even a political party to help bring your perspective to all they do.
The political process, our democracy, isn’t something done to us. We collectively own and run it – how much of a role we play in that is down to each and every one of us. Get involved and let’s shape a better future.