Trust in politics: how we lost it and how to get it back

Here’s my speech to the Total Politics fringe meeting in Bournemouth about trust in politics:

If I wasn’t a politician, and given the theme of trust tonight, I would talk about the world we now live in where trust has virtually disappeared, a world where we have to be vetted to drive kids to school and a world where ticking boxes has replaced personal responsibility and standards.

But I am a politician – and I expect Iain invited me here tonight to talk about the trust that we politicians have lost.

The atmosphere in Parliament during the weeks of the exposure of the corrupt and greedy goings on of elected, ‘honourable’ members was horrible – no quarter given out there for those who deserved everything they got.

But absurd and wrong though duck houses were – it’s worth pausing a moment to reflect on how they caught not just the public’s eye but stoked the public’s anger – far more, it seems, than far bigger sums in the world of bankers’ bonus and salaries.

In part, perhaps, that is because the banking sums are so astronomical as to be beyond imagination – but a duck house (once you’ve discovered what one is) is all too palpable.

Moreover, MPs are in a holier than thou position – or meant to be. When you make laws for others, you bloody well should follow them yourselves. People need to be able to trust those in a position of authority – and we betrayed, comprehensibly.

So our fall was pretty spectacular.

However, it was not unprecedented.

Remember when Blair came in on a non-spin, whiter than white ticket? Those hopes and dreams were dashed very quickly by that litany of Iraq, dodgy dossiers, turning a blind eye to corruption in arms deals and extraordinary rendition.

He was in many ways simply following in the footsteps of each political generation. Each has its own story of high hopes that end up mired in controversy, sleaze and broken trust.

In the Major years we had the Iraqi supergun. The Thatcher years gave us Westland, Bernard Ingham’s briefings, battles against freedom of information and so on. In the 1970s it was Poulson, Stonehouse, Thorpe. And so on back through each inglorious episode.

All through those episode, democracy has survived. We’re still here. So I combine my anger with what I’ve discovered fellow MPs were up to with hope that our political system can survive once more.

The danger this time is greater – for the anger and disgust is not at a handful of people, or even a whole political party – this time the scandal sweeps up all of Parliament, across party lines.

So it will be a long hard slog, requiring solutions that change the system, not just a few faces – or the governing party. And here are my ten starters to get us on that road. They are all doable. They are all either free or cheap. They could all be done within months – if there is the will.

First, transparency on expenses: we have seen what an effective disinfectant publicity has been. There are rules that still need changing – but there’s no doubt that it is the glare of publicity that has changed Parliamentarians’ behaviour far more than alternations to the rulebook.

Second, end comfy deals for MPs and Lords employing their relatives. I don’t believe in a blanket ban for an area that involves such a myriad of different individual arrangements, including the happy ones where the MP marries a member of their staff – but local government shows how it can be done properly. Use the same rules as used for employing political assistants in councils around the country – clear, above the board employment rules, but with those for whom the staff end up working closely involved in the process.

Third, just as Parliament should learn from local government, so too it should learn from commercial companies. It’s normal practice to have contracts to ensure senior staff can’t leave and then immediately start using the knowledge they’ve gain to earn money for someone else. Same rules should apply to MPs – and most especially, but not only ministers – with a proper gap between ending your time in Parliament and starting your job if it is a clear case of poacher turned game keeper.

Fourth, remove the near monopoly of the Cabinet on deciding what legislation goes before Parliament. Instead of shunting away backbenchers’ bills into time slots that are too short and out of the way, give them prime place in the legislative agenda. And as an added bonus – that may well focus the minds of the Cabinet rather better than they are at the moment, with the endless going back year after year after year to the same topics to legislate again and again and again.

Fifth, recognise the changing media world and let bloggers into the Lobby. The more channels of communication the better – and the blogosphere has as much right as any to be admitted to the lobby – especially if you start comparing actual readership figures, not just of blog versus newspaper but of blog post versus newspaper story on page 12.

Sixth, ensure ministers give their statements first to Parliament. This isn’t about Parliament for Parliament’s sake – but about ensuring that when statements made, they don’t get the cosy free ride of a minister leaking it to a favour journalist who in return runs the story uncritically, giving the minister a free pass. No – it makes for better government and cuts away some of the grandstanding for the tabloid headlines if statements have to stand up to immediate scrutiny.

In order to enforce this there has to be a real punishment for ministers who err – perhaps by giving the opposition a free extra debate on any topic they wish in the minister’s area – so cancelling out, and more, any media benefit from breaking the rules.

Seventh, increase the number of cameras in the Commons – and let all the angles be broadcast, online and on TV. This isn’t just about the irony that whilst Parliament merrily overseas the spread of cameras pointing at everyone else, Parliament retains tight rules on what cameras can be shone on its members in the Chamber. It’s about taming the awful herd mentality of bad behaviour that so often grips the Commons.

Exhortations to be nice won’t stop MPs from behaving like the sort of rude rabble that would get you sacked in another job. So instead catch it on camera, stick it up on YouTube – and let the media, their political opponents and the satirists have a field day. Still think the job of an MP involves sitting there mouthing sexist comments at female MPs? Fine – let’s see what the public thinks where the compilation of your greatest moments hits YouTube.

Eighth, introduce a TV debate between party leaders at general election time – with questions asked by the public and with each questioner getting a follow up. There’s no better way to make politicians answer the question than the knowledge that if they don’t, it won’t trigger just another sneer from Jeremy Paxman or interruption from John Humphreys – but it’ll give all the TV cameras a shot of an angry member of the public.

Ninth, make Tom Steinberg the Parliamentary webmaster. I don’t know if Tom would wish or accept that job (though the threat of imprisonment in the Tower should be quite persuasive!) but quite simply he and his colleagues in MySociety have consistently shown-up Parliament and central government when it comes to understanding how to use data and the internet to give the public sight over what is done in their name.

And tenth – give the public a referendum on introducing multimember Parliamentary constituencies – so you no longer have people feeling they are forced to vote for mediocre or worse candidates because they are from the party they want to support overall. Give a choice between candidates of the same party and then the bad and the lazy really need fear losing their seats.

Then and only then will we begin to regain the trust of the people.

0 thoughts on “Trust in politics: how we lost it and how to get it back

  1. I switched off ‘mainstream’ politics when I realised the discussion was centred more on saving party face than on dealing with reality, and after throwing a few votes down the drain in an underpowered voting system.

    If Ministers want trust, the best thing they can do is acknowledge viewpoints that might actually disagree with their pre-arranged agendas. I suspect that if they have the will to do that, and enact everything above, then all of the above wouldn’t actually be needed.

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