Do we need some ‘New Levellers’?

Today’s article is a guest post by Ian Chisnall on the subject of political reform.  Ian has worked for over a decade as the County Ecumenical Officer for Churches Together in Sussex. In 2011 he responded to a call from leaders in all three political parties for community leaders to stand in the elections as Police and Crime Commissioner. He has never been a member of a Political Party and took on trust that this was exactly what these parties wanted to see emerge. Although the parties decided to put up candidates, Ian came third with nearly 39,000 votes (less than 2,000 behind Labour) and well ahead of UKIP and the Lib Dems. He spent the least of all 5 candidates on his election (£370), only 1% of the £37,000 spent by the winning Conservative candidate.

Ian blogs and is also on Twitter.

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As a nation we are at a cross roads in terms of the wellbeing and strength of many of our national institutions. Organisations such as the Monarchy, Church and Political Parties as well as the Fourth Estate following the behaviour that led to the Levenson enquiry all face a discernible loss of confidence.

The main Political Parties have suffered from an exponential reduction in membership since peaks around 1950. As well as needing to work hard to appeal to new members in a competitive environment, they are attempting to run costly organisations with diminishing resources. There are also signs that the race to the centre is causing traditional party members anxiety. This was made clear in one of Mark Thompson’s House of Comments podcasts on 12 March 2013 when examples were given of Lib Dem activists being unwilling to support candidates who as MPs have voted for Secret Courts and Student Labour refusing to campaign for sitting MPs who have voted against same-sex marriage. Along with the deteriorating mainstream political parties there has been a significant growth in single issue pressure groups that have been gnawing away at the parties both locally and nationally. To this can be added the growth of the smaller political parties such as the Greens, UKIP and BNP along with the Celtic nationalists and some newer sectarian political parties. Despite these changes to the political landscape at the margins of the mainstream including the recent positive outcome for UKIP and in certain policy areas, tribalism remains strong within all parties including these newer ones. The public appear no more interested in the jousting of Farage vs Cameron than they do with the more traditional battles between Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative. What is missing is a model for political engagement that allows the broad range of policy issues to be supported without forcing those involved to buy into the tribalism that is so repulsive to many electors and lies at the heart of some of the abuse and cover up scandals. Clearly the challenge to the status quo is not something which is limited to the UK, the most extreme European comparator seems to be the Beppe Grillo success in Italy as leader of the Five Star Movement. In fiction Birgitte Nyborg of Borgen fame shows us the impact of an Independent Prime Minister.

My own interest in the issue of substantial political reform came to a head when I decided to stand as a candidate for the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner. My decision to stand in the election was based on a number of factors. The PCC role was one that could make a substantial difference to the electorate, yet would allow someone who had no party political allegiance to be seriously considered (indeed at the outset all of the mainstream parties claimed they intended the posts to be filled by people without a party history). In some respects the clarity for me that we need to find a new political paradigm emerged as the tribal powers and principalities took hold of the process and some very unsuitable candidates emerged across the country who were well placed to win, simply on the strength of them being selected by a dominant political party. My campaign was supported by a number of people who supported me because they believe that we need to open politics up to Independent candidates. Much of this support was because of the role and came from people who are paid up members of a range of different parties, but there were others who like me are of the opinion that the days of political parties dominating civic governance is coming to an end.

A number of other people are also working on this agenda. In 2009 the ex-Conservative Lord Paul Judge set up the Jury Party offering to be a party for Independent candidates wishing to help shake up the cosy party political system. Supposedly timed to contest the 2009 EU elections the concept was that individuals would agree to certain rules in terms of accountability and be “committed to the principles of good governance, including selflessness, integrity, openness and honesty” whilst being left alone to determine the individual policies that they would put on their manifesto. During my early preparation for the PCC election I became aware of the Independent Network which is an organisation set up by a group of people including Martin Bell. Sadly the network lacked the funding to support those standing in the PCC elections, but their approach is to take up references on candidates before endorsing them. This endorsement is based on character and credibility but like the Jury Party does not seek to provide policy guidance or control. In late 2012 (too late for the PCC elections) Andreas Whittam Smith established a network known as Democracy 2015 which was created to secure Independent candidates in all of the seats at the General Election in 2015. Their criteria was to only select people with no previous party political background, but they also wanted to find a consensus across a wider membership on policy issues. At the time of writing this initiative appears to have run into the sand.

A cursory reading of Wikipedia explains that exactly 365 years ago in July 1648 a small political movement known as ‘The Levellers’ first published a newspaper called ‘The Moderate’. It was a short lived publication and it had ceased publication by September 1649. The Levellers emphasised popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, and equality before the law and religious tolerance. They were not a political party in the modern sense of the word and pioneered the use of modern technology (in their case petitions and pamphlets) to exert influence on the Government of the day. By 1650 they had all but disappeared but they left behind a significant legacy.

In the light of the current pressure on our political institutions and the historical significance of this year’s anniversary, perhaps part of the answer is for a new group of levellers to emerge who use today’s modern technology to influence our political system with some similar themes. These new levellers could perhaps develop a network of local groups committed to promoting and supporting political leadership that is not tied or limited to any one political party, and include a strong emphasis on the value of Independence from all of the parties. These new Levellers should be a group willing to promote the value of religious engagement within the political life of the country without attempting to be exclusive to any one faith or tradition or indeed look for an exclusively faith-based network. The original Levellers were not a youth movement in any sense but this new movement should have a strong focus on involving young people and creating space for youth movements to play a full part. A focus on other areas of equal involvement is also an important element. The network should remain light on cost which would clearly rely on the use new media where possible in place of the more traditional mechanisms.



Categories: Parliament, Party politics

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2 replies

  1. An interesting piece reflecting much of the reality of the pluralistic political scene in which we now live. However, in a representative system of democracy there will always be a need to form alliances in order to achieve majority support for any measure or policy approach to be adopted.

    Political parties have been the main means of delivering this in our recent history and I’m not sure how well a system peopled solely by ‘independents’ would be able to better deliver consistent and coherent decision making. Even the desire of the early history of the United States to avoid the emergence of political parties did not succeed.

    One final point, I think that Birgitte Byborg in the excellent Danish series was not an independent politician but the leader of the Moderates, unless my reading of the subtitles has agone awry….

    • Hi Matt, sorry to take so long to respond. You may well be right about Birgitte, my own grasp of the detail was not 100%. In terms of the issue of alliances, that would clearly be vital in any future that is more fluid than what we have at present. I think it is interesting that recently there has been a number of (so far unsuccessful) attempts to find a way of bringing Independents to a place where they can play an effective role. It is clear that the occasional Independent or Green gets more profile than a single backbencher in a party but the impact of even 10% would be a challenge for all in Westminster. There are a number operating locally and we now have nearly a third as PCCs.

      I certainly don’t think we would see a majority of Independents in say Parliament, but enough to ensure that votes are a bit more unpredictable perhaps, and if that was the case finding a way of engaging with such people will be vital. The Party manifestos are a poor guide to what gets delivered. Are we sophisticated enough to handle personal manifestos?

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