A retirement scheme for unpopular politicians

What should happen if an unpopular politician is voted out in an election? You’d have thought that the answer is "they lose power" and – thankfully – in many countries around the world, that’s what happens.

But the UK is rather different. It has a special little retirement scheme. Got booted out of office? Don’t worry, just hang round for a while and you’ll be given a place for life in Parliament, complete with voting rights, without any risk of ever losing an election again.

I am talking, of course, about the House of Lords. What more eloquent example do we need of the willingness of some in our political establishment to freeze out the public that even now, well into the twenty-first century, we have our laws voted on week after week (when Parliament sits!) by people beyond the reach of democracy?

And I most assuredly include Labour in this establishment – for after eleven and more years in power, there is no excuse for still having failed to introduce democracy to our upper chamber. Saying now they might eventually get round to doing something after the next general election is no real sign of action – it is the classic punting of the issue into the long grass.

So when I hear government ministers talk about the need to engage the public more in our political system – as Hazel Blears did last week in her speech to the Hansard Society – excuse me if I approach it with a fair degree of cynicism.

Both in its symbolism and in its practical impact, introducing democracy into that half of our Parliament would do far more for engaging people with our political systems than a decade of speeches from the rest of us over the other side in the Commons.

But my concerns with the Blears’ approach to democracy run deeper than just my belief that Parliament should be – well – democratic. Buried in between her swipes at bloggers and commentators were these words:

"Commentary has taken over from investigation or news reporting, to the point where commentators are viewed by some as every bit as important as elected politicians, with views as valid as Cabinet Ministers."

"As valid" hey? Certainly the view from outside the ministerial bunker is often very different from that from inside, but just because you are commentating on something rather than being a Cabinet Minister doesn’t suddenly make your views less "valid".

Indeed, many commentators on many topics have far more expertise than Cabinet Ministers who have been through the shuffle-round-the-departments merry-go-round on their ascent to the Cabinet, leaving them with little real in depth expertise in any area.

Add in to this Blears’ view that, "If you can wield influence and even power, without ever standing for office or being held to account by an electorate, it further undermines our democracy" and I get a worrying picture of someone with – despite the surface rhetoric about devolution – actually a very centralising, all power to the ministerial apparatus outlook.

Because real devolution of power and engagement with the public means dispersing power and influence all through society – not just democratising the House of Lords which – irony alert! – in its present state actually pretty much meets Hazel’s description of the very thing she says undermines democracy.

No devolution means spreading influence to all sorts of groups. School governing bodies, residents’ associations, trade bodies, transport users’ groups and more – all should of which should even have a touch of power.

Democracy and democratic institutions need to be central to this web of wider power and influence, but power and influence should be about so much more than just casting a vote for your choice of politicians every now and again.

So – yes, I agree with Hazel Blears when it comes to saying we need to improve our politics and engage more with people. But – I fear that in reality far from being part of the solution, she is part of the problem.

This article first appeared on the New Statesman website, where you can also read Hazel Blears’ response and comments from the public.

(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2008