How to improve British politics

Academics discuss what might be done to improve trust, reduce cynicism and get young people to vote

May 7, 2015

Ed Miliband mask lying on floor

Source: Reuters

Better government
It is government that needs to change more than Parliament

Public cynicism towards politics is reaching new heights. Politicians are widely considered to be venal, tribal and dishonest. But what are they really like? Since October 2011, I have been studying MPs at work, and my anthropological research has thrown up some surprises. Half the new 2010 intake of MPs took a pay cut to enter Westminster, MPs have defied their whips more frequently in every Parliament since 1945, and MPs did not seem to be any less honest than any other professional group – or, specifically, than members of groups with complex combinations of interests where compromises have to be made. Far from their popular image as power-hungry egoists, many MPs in their attitude reminded me of aid workers, driven by a mix of ambition and altruistic desire to improve society – but MPs work harder and accept more painful scrutiny.

So what underlies public disenchantment? First, the work of politics – with its messiness, contradictions and changeability – is disdained, perhaps especially by those with little experience of working within teams. Second, Parliament and government are conflated in people’s minds. They are different parts of the state and need to be disentangled.

Since the low point of the MPs’ 2008-09 expenses scandal, when greedy and, in a few cases, even criminal claims were exposed, Parliament has been enjoying a Doctor Who-like regeneration. In recent years, the select committees have become ferocious and are growing in influence over the government and in the media. The current speaker, John Bercow, has enlivened the Chamber by allowing many more “urgent questions” (those requiring an immediate answer from a minister), making ministers squirm in defending government action. Backbenchers have led some of the most moving debates in the last Parliament, inspiring alliances across political parties and leading to policy change.

The work of MPs is being transformed by the increasing demands of constituents, the rise of social media and the decline of the main political parties. MPs used to reluctantly visit their constituency once a year; now, most derive a sense of purpose and satisfaction from responding to the requests of constituents. They hold weekly surgeries in their offices, in supermarkets and in the street, listening to how the state has failed to prevent penury, insanity or homelessness. Female MPs excel at this work; the only MPs I could identify who delegated all such meetings to their staff were men. Often dismissed as “social work” by pundits and academics, these encounters bring MPs down to earth – alerting them to the impact of government policies and services.

Where Parliament requires reform is in the sphere of people and relationships rather than structures or systems. It is scandalous that only one-fifth of MPs are women and that representation of the working class in Parliament is declining. We need to recruit and retain MPs who bring diversity and variety of experience to Parliament. But it is government that needs to change even more than Parliament; some of the chaos it causes is unavoidable as the state increases in complexity, but a radical change of approach is required. Presently, in a bid for approval, each new government restructures arms of the state – most notoriously the NHS and the education system – despite pre-election promises not to, causing havoc and plunging morale among public-sector staff and the Civil Service to rock bottom. A focus on efficient administration, rather than restructuring and switching policies, would improve outcomes.

The way the government relates to the private sector, the media and civil society requires cultural and political reconfiguration. Robert Peston’s Who Runs Britain?…and Who’s to Blame for the Economic Mess We’re in (2008) details how politicians fail to challenge the private sector’s enriching of the already super-rich and their declining interest in the welfare of their own staff and of workers more generally. Journalists mimic the antagonism of politicians, mean-spiritedly pointing fingers, and neglect the chronic failure of governments to deal with poverty, inequality and climate change. The “government” is reified, and we relish the fantasy that blame can be heaped on individuals. Government’s incapacity cannot be solved with reshuffles and quick-fix structural change.

We need recognition of the strengths of British politics as well as its deficiencies, and then we need more challenging engagement by civil society and citizens to demand a higher and longer-term morality and enlightenment from corporations and journalists as well as government ministers and officials. Signs of such engagement emerged from the disastrous complacency of Westminster during the run-up to the Scottish referendum, with the remarkably high voter turnout of 84.5 per cent. It is an irony that political failure can stir up the energy to revive democracy. In our contemporary politics, our biggest mistake is to look for failure in the wrong places. We all play a part in political failures when we refuse to engage.

Emma Crewe is research associate in the department of anthropology and sociology at Soas, University of London. Her latest books, House of Commons: An Anthropology of MPs at Work and Commons and Lords: A Short Anthropology of Parliament, were published last month.

Man wearing a Tony Blair face mask

Boosting trust in politicians
Is there any way back from the abyss?

Putting aside the ups and downs of opinion polls and party fortunes, this general election is taking place against a backdrop of low citizen confidence and trust in politicians. The latest figures from the British Social Attitudes survey show that one-third (32 per cent) of the British population profess to “almost never” trusting government, three times the level recorded in 1986. Over the same period, the proportion of citizens saying they trust government “just about always” or “most of the time” has halved, from 38 per cent to 17 per cent. Although different polls arrive at slightly different figures, it seems clear that Britons today are more sceptical of their political leaders than they were in the past. Moreover, this scepticism does not generalise to other public officials. According to data from Ipsos-Mori, two-thirds or more of British citizens still trust the police and judges, way above levels of trust in politicians and governments.

The low public regard in which they are held has not gone unnoticed by MPs and ministers. Efforts have been made by both Labour and Conservative-Liberal Democrat governments to boost levels of trust by making government more transparent, more tightly regulating politicians’ behaviour and devolving power away from London. Yet in spite of these constitutional changes, levels of political trust have remained stubbornly low. In part, of course, this reflects a succession of negative events and scandals; think of “cash for questions” in the 1990s, the Iraq war and the MPs’ expenses affair in the 2000s and, more recently, broken election promises. The damaging effects of these and other incidents are often easy to pick up: after the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009, for example, Ipsos-Mori found that trust in politicians, already low in 2008 at 20 per cent, had fallen even further, to just 13 per cent.

But in between such negative events, why does trust not rebound? One answer, supplied by psychologists, is that trust – in other people and in institutions – manifests an “asymmetry effect” whereby negative information has a much stronger effect than positive information. A “negativity bias” among individuals means that far more positive news is needed to compensate for a small amount of negative information. Yet achieving even a balanced provision of information is difficult when the media’s political coverage is so critical. A second answer seems to be that people are simply turned off by the way politics is conducted. Qualitative research has shown that politicians are widely seen as out of touch and self-interested, while “formal” politics is seen as dominated by obfuscation, sophistry and broken promises. Peter Kellner, the political commentator and president of the polling firm YouGov, summed up people’s feelings well when he said that what people want from politicians, but were failing to get, was “authenticity”.

It might be some small crumb of comfort if other countries were also experiencing a similar level of popular distrust and scepticism. But while discontent is clearly visible in the US, and in recession-stricken countries such as Greece and Spain, it is less apparent in other wealthy Western European countries. Surveys suggest that citizens in these countries have, unlike their British counterparts, retained moderate or high levels of trust in their political leaders. There seems to be something particularly rotten in the state of British democracy.

What can be done about this? There may be some mileage in institutional changes that devolve more power to the local level, making politicians more accessible and diluting the focus on what is often seen as an out-of-touch Westminster “village”. But would these changes risk replacing one distrusted set of politicians with another? Alternatively, politicians might change the way they behave, so that the conduct of politics conforms more closely to public expectations. But are behavioural changes really likely? While people may crave authenticity from their politicians, modern political campaigning and media coverage seem to encourage exactly the opposite forms of conduct.

The problem of low trust is easily stated; the solution is more difficult. In early 21st-century Britain, voters’ electoral choices may be increasingly changeable, but their distrust and scepticism of politicians seem unlikely to shift any time soon.

Ben Seyd is a lecturer in politics at the University of Kent. He is currently writing a book on political trust.

David Cameron and Howling Laud Hope

Electoral reform
A plurality of choices, but first past the post is hard to unseat

UK voters going to the polls today will elect MPs using the “first past the post” system – a selection method that has attracted much debate.

“Most political scientists call this the single-member plurality (SMP) system because there is a single winner in each House of Commons constituency, the candidate with the most votes – a plurality, but not necessarily more than half,” explains Thomas Lundberg, lecturer in politics at the University of Glasgow.

In the UK’s increasingly multi-party system, SMP appears more and more dysfunctional, he argues. “With more than two main parties, smaller parties can lose out, ending up with a smaller share of seats than of votes. SMP can create problems for bigger parties, too – in 2010, the Conservative Party was left without a majority despite the fact that it had a higher share of the vote (36 per cent) than Labour in 2005, which won 55 per cent of the seats with 35 per cent of the vote,” Lundberg explains.

He adds that SMP is also quite unusual in this part of the world. Systems of proportional representation, which aim to reflect each party’s electoral support in its share of seats, are now used for sub-state bodies, such as the Scottish Parliament and Scotland’s local councils, the UK’s European Parliament seats and in nearly all other European democracies.

“But electoral reform in established democracies can be very difficult, and change is unlikely even when single-party majorities become less common, as the experiences of Canada (frequent minority governments) and India (large coalition governments) reveal – SMP appears entrenched here,” says Lundberg. “New Zealand is the only long-standing SMP-using democracy to adopt proportional representation. In the UK, the main parties are resistant to change, preferring the status quo. Politicians winning under SMP are hesitant to do away with the system that has brought them power that, until recently, they did not need to share with other parties; they would rather hope for a return to ‘the good old days’ than accept the likely entrenchment of power sharing facilitated by a proportional system.”

Paul Webb, professor of politics at the University of Sussex, says that the shift towards a multi-party system reflects “the ways in which complex and overlapping processes of European integration, devolution, social and economic changes have impacted on the country (if, indeed, it is a single country) since the early 1970s”. He agrees that this strengthens the case for a system of proportional representation “that would better reflect the diversity of our party politics at Westminster”.

“The widespread experience of coalition or minority government across the UK undermines traditional scaremongering regarding anything other than single-party governments; they plainly do not bring chaos or ‘weak’ government,” Webb adds.

So what outcome is likely today? As in 2010, one of the larger parties will probably win a larger share of the seats than it wins from the popular vote, Lundberg predicts. “Smaller parties are likely to end up with a smaller share of seats than votes, although small parties with territorially concentrated support can overcome this problem. Polling has suggested that the Scottish National Party could win 40 to 50 seats (about 6 or 7 per cent) on about 4 per cent of the UK-wide vote, while the UK Independence Party, on three or four times this level of electoral support, will struggle to win a handful of seats because its vote is spread out across a much wider area. Regrettably, such peculiar results are unlikely to hasten electoral reform.”

While Lundberg believes that electoral reform is unlikely, Karin A. Bottom, lecturer in politics at the University of Birmingham, thinks that the election will at least draw attention to “the mechanical and psychological effects” of the first past the post system.

“A system’s democratic legitimacy is, in part at least, reflected in the extent to which parliamentary representation reflects electoral choice,” she says. “Westminster looks set to disappoint on this count while at the same time failing to return a majority government – the key benefit emphasised by its proponents. To the majority of onlookers, this represents the worst of both worlds.”

THE reporters

A girl wearing yes stickers on her face

Lowering the voting age to 16
Vote early, vote often: on the benefits of starting young

More than 100,000 16- and 17-year-olds voted in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence after the Scottish Parliament passed legislation to allow it.

So should young people be allowed to vote at 16 in general elections? A number of political parties have expressed support for the idea, among them Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and the Scottish National Party, and the idea is backed by the UK’s “Votes at 16” campaign.

“Despite all the concerns expressed by politicians, academics, campaigners and commentators about turnout in recent general elections, more than 1.5 million 16- and 17-year-olds in the UK are not legally entitled to cast a vote,” says Ben Kisby, senior lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lincoln and co-convenor of the Political Studies Association’s Young People’s Politics specialist group. “Instead, they will have to watch passively today while older citizens go to the ballot box in what looks likely to be the most tightly contested general election in recent history.

“Young people have been marginalised in public policy in recent years, and votes at 16 would help to address this, particularly as preventing people from voting until they are 18 means that many citizens, in practice, do not get a chance to vote in general elections until they are well into their twenties.” This is important because, Kisby says, evidence suggests that unless people acquire the habit of voting when they are young, they will carry on failing to vote as they get older.

Paula Keaveney, a lecturer in public relations at Edge Hill University and the Liberal Democrat candidate for Sefton Central, has found that teenagers are often split 50:50 on whether voting at 16 is a good idea. When she visits sixth forms, those against cite lack of knowledge and information. “My own students complain that they were not taught about politics at school. So any change needs to go hand in hand with a commitment to make sure that schools equip their young people with the information and tools needed to become those decision-makers,” Keaveney says.

“Will giving votes at 16 on its own reinvigorate democracy? No. But it would give young people the chance to have a say, and would motivate political campaigners to take young people’s views more seriously,” she adds.

Kisby believes that it is “time that the next generation of workers, parents and political leaders have the chance to influence how their country is run”.

THE reporters

A man wearing a mask with the England flag on it

Improving the UK’s relationship with the EU
Give more time and study to the Continent’s political culture

Relations between Britain and the European Union are a controversial issue in this election, but this suggestion is not concerned with whether the UK should stay in the EU or leave it. My question is whether the structures of British politics could be adapted to better deal with the EU – whether Britain should find itself at the heart of Europe, on the margins or on the outside. Wherever Britain might end up politically, geographically it will still be next door to a unique and influential political organisation, and Britain needs to find better ways of engaging with it.

As we all know, the EU is a large and complex political organism that has altered traditional patterns of democratic power. There are well-known debates about this: that the process of EU decision-making suffers from a democratic deficit and a lack of transparency. And these are not just problems at an EU level, they have direct consequences for the British political system. EU committees of the UK Parliament have to deal with a huge load of documentation that emanates from the EU, and there is also a very clear lack of basic knowledge about the EU in the British public at large.

So what could be done? First, the government’s input into EU affairs needs to be made more transparent. Concrete proposals would include increasing access to documents, particularly those relating to the common foreign and security policy and what are termed “limité” documents; greater use of House of Commons debates around transposition of EU measures into UK law; and greater regularity in allowing parliamentary questioning of ministers dealing with EU issues – particularly but not solely the minister for Europe.

Second, it is worth improving the ability of Parliament’s committees to debate and discuss EU issues. They would benefit from a more permanent structure and membership, allowing expertise to build up. Additionally, there is a need to increase the opportunities for representatives from the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (and, indeed, for English regions) to be involved in broader discussions about UK-EU relations – the current twice-yearly system is too infrequent for effective oversight.

Third, certainly for so long as Britain remains a member of the EU, it is important to boost the visibility and accountability of the EU’s institutions. This could involve in particular better opportunities for MEPs – not just British ones, but from all member states – to contribute to political debates and discussions.

Finally, the overall level of public awareness needs to increase. It is harder to find effective ways of doing this – media outlets cannot be ordered to devote more time to Europe. But a commitment to strengthening the teaching of politics at secondary level would help to overcome some of the deficiencies.

These reforms will not suddenly alter the whole nature of EU-UK relations; we are dealing with a very large ferry that changes direction only very slowly. But an altered heading would be good – for the UK and for the EU.

Michael Holmes is senior lecturer in European politics at Liverpool Hope University.

A man and woman dressed up as superheroes

Selecting parliamentary candidates
Initial choices matter most, even in open primaries

Want a greater say in who will be your next MP? Unless you live in a marginal constituency, the best way to do this is to get involved in the selection of a party candidate.

Under the “first past the post” system, voters going to the polls today are faced with just one name for their chosen party. This means that “selection” rather than the “election” becomes the key point of influence, particularly in seats that are viewed as “safe”. Yet very few of us take part in candidate selection. And some argue that as candidates are selected by a relatively small group sharing the same characteristics and ideas about politics, candidates are becoming more similar. This in turn can mean less diverse representation, whether across class, gender, attitude or background.

If you think that MPs are there to represent a geographical area, you might argue that diversity doesn’t matter. As an elected councillor, for example, I never found it difficult to represent a working-class male constituent despite being very much a middle-class female. However, if we think that decision-making is best when informed by as many backgrounds as possible, then lack of diversity is a serious concern.

There have been limited experiments in the UK with so-called open primaries. These involve a party in effect allowing any resident in the constituency a vote in the final selection. Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, the most recent chair of the Health Committee, was chosen that way in Totnes in 2009.

Those in favour of open primaries argue that this system is more open, more democratic and means the candidate begins with support already established.

But no system such as this can operate without an initial shortlist. Wollaston was on a shortlist of three. And it is the decisions of those creating the shortlist – very much still part of the party system – that determine the options presented to the selectorate.

Those in favour of open primaries argue that they bring able people into politics, but Wollaston was already a member of the Conservative Party. And now that a few years have distanced us from the major MPs’ expenses scandal, parties seem less keen to use or to suggest open primaries.

It seems odd to me that there is more comment and campaigning around the right to sack an MP (the so-called recall powers) than there is around the right to choose a candidate in the first place. We shouldn’t let this issue fall off the agenda.

Paula Keaveney is a lecturer in public relations at Edge Hill University and the Liberal Democrat candidate for Sefton Central.

Men balancing in a pyramid formation

Digital democracy and citizens’ assemblies
Construct interactive populist platforms

It is a sad truism of modern democracy that citizens are disillusioned with political elites and institutions.

Research suggests that there are broadly two categories of disaffected citizen: those who are well educated, interested in public affairs and have a sense of their own political efficacy; and those who are less well educated and lack interest or belief in their ability to affect political outcomes.

While the former are frustrated at the lack of opportunities to influence political outcomes under current forms of representative democracy, the latter retreat into political apathy, showing little desire to engage.

A combination of new technology and new participatory opportunities can help both groups.

The recent Report of the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy provides a helpful cue regarding the first of these developments, while the Republic of Ireland’s Constitutional Convention is an inspirational model for new forms of political participation and education among ordinary citizens, incorporating an element of popular involvement known as a citizens’ assembly. This entails a randomly selected cross-section of citizens participating in a process of learning and debating public issues, before making recommendations to government, which may then put questions to the legislature or to the wider populace in a referendum.

Novel forms of digital democracy carry potential to enhance citizens’ political knowledge and their capacity to interact in new ways with elected representatives. Citizens’ assemblies, meanwhile, provide a means of enhancing people’s understanding of key issues, a new channel of influence and a way of boosting political efficacy. A British Constitutional Convention along these lines would help Westminster to forge an enduring and legitimate response to the implications of the Scottish independence referendum.

Paul Webb is professor of politics at the University of Sussex.

People wearing Nicola Sturgeon face masks in front of a large poster of Alex Salmond

Building more harmonious coalitions
Take a clear-headed and considered view of role in power

Historians are fond of saying that history never truly repeats itself and that it is dangerous to draw lessons from history. In terms of contemporary British politics, they may be right; the next coalition won’t be like the last. We’re unlikely to see a repeat of the stable (though oft-maligned) two-party coalition that was in power between 2010 and 2015; it’s more likely that arrangements will be more complicated, potentially involving more parties, and perhaps not lasting the course of a five-year fixed-term Parliament (particularly given that mechanisms still exist for triggering an early general election).

With this in mind, the lessons to be drawn from the 2010-15 experience might be somewhat limited, but two nonetheless resound from the pages of (recent) history.

Lesson one: If you’re a small party, play a big hand
As Robert Hazell and Ben Yong of University College London’s Constitution Unit (among others) have noted, the Liberal Democrats – notwithstanding what they told themselves and the public – didn’t get the best of deals out of the 2010 coalition agreement. They mistook “victories” over the minutiae of policies the electorate had not noticed as more significant than the losses. And the losses were great indeed. Tuition fees (of particular import for Times Higher Education readers) was the oft-mentioned nadir of coalition politics for the Lib Dems, but support for the VAT rise and the ditching of opposition to nuclear power meant that in the eyes of the public at least, the Lib Dems lost their soul. Beyond that, in terms of the machinery of government, when you come into a coalition make sure you get jobs that matter. Deputy prime minister has historically been a “non-job” in British politics; better for a small party to take Cabinet posts that are less about status and more about building a record for the next election.

Lesson two: As in any relationship, it is best not to rush
The formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took place incredibly quickly by international standards. This left the two parties’ wider membership – and their voters – behind. Neither was given much time to adjust to the reality of cooperation with those who had been historically their mortal enemies. This sowed the seeds for dissent during the coalition years, which had particularly profound consequences for David Cameron over Europe.

A little more conversation and a little less knee-jerk action during the negotiating phase might, on both counts, deliver a better series of compromises across what may well be a very complicated, polygamous, marriage.

Mike Finn is the co-editor, with Sir Anthony Seldon, of The Coalition Effect, 2010-2015 (2015), and a lecturer at Liverpool Hope University. In 2006 he was head of research and political speechwriter to the leader of the Liberal Democrats during the transition from Charles Kennedy to Menzies Campbell.

A hand holding lots of banknotes

Fixing party funding
Deep worries over deep pockets

In 2000, a major piece of political reform established a regulator – the Electoral Commission – and demanded unprecedented levels of accountability about party funding and imposed new definitions of what was legitimate. But the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 left lacunae.

While election campaign expenditure was capped to halt the development of an arms race among increasingly free-spending parties, donations were not similarly constrained. This is pernicious because it permits the continuing perception, rightly or wrongly, that big donors can buy influence over (and peerages from) those who make public policy.

The impasse that has blocked reform has been partly cleared by Ed Miliband’s bold changes to Labour’s financial links with the affiliated trade unions; the requirement that individual union members now have to actively opt in to paying a political levy and to declare their allegiance to Labour goes some way towards allowing union affiliation fees to the party to be regarded as the sum of many small donations.

But, as several inquiries have already indicated, the public will have to accept greater state funding of parties if individual donations are to be limited; otherwise a funding shortfall would undoubtedly occur, which would make it hard for parties to function effectively.

Paul Webb is professor of politics at the University of Sussex.

People asleep in a tiny tent

Low turnout among the young
A real stake in society will make voters sizzle

Young people are notorious abstainers. There is nothing new about this – the young have long been identified as a group of the electorate less likely to vote. But the already low levels of turnout among young people are in rapid decline in some countries, and Britain leads the ranks in Europe.

The age gap in voter turnout was relatively stable in the UK until the early 1990s, with turnout levels among young adults on average being 10 to 15 percentage points lower than the turnout of older voters. The gap between young and old increased rapidly after the 1992 election and reached close to a staggering 30 percentage points in the 2005 elections. Although the situation improved somewhat in 2010, the age gap in the UK is by far the largest of all European countries. Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, for example, all show a relatively stable age gap through time. In Italy, younger and older people vote in almost equal proportions. In some elections, turnout among young Italians has even been higher than that of older voters.

Young voters grow into older voters. Unless turnout losses are made up as young people age, the recently witnessed decline in turnout among young adults would imply lower general turnouts in the future. This may endanger both the legitimacy of and representation in electoral democracies.

On the other hand, it has long been established that the likelihood of voting increases with age, so one could argue that young voters’ low electoral interest will pick up in the future. However, it is not the number of candles on one’s birthday cake that matters for political participation, but rather the life experiences that accompany the transition to adulthood. Evidence suggests that key events such as leaving school, starting a first job, buying a house, getting married and forming a family are gradually taking place at a higher average age. It is an intuitive yet often overlooked explanation, but delayed transitions to adulthood do indeed negatively affect turnout levels of young citizens.

Assisting young citizens to become independent and established in stable adulthood earlier is likely to have a positive impact on young adults’ turnout. Tackling youth unemployment, assisting first-time homebuyers and providing sufficient childcare facilities are examples of measures that would facilitate the transition to adulthood and increase young citizens’ levels of political engagement. In this sense, the current economic crisis, which puts young people in the UK and the rest of Europe in an exceptionally precarious situation, does not bode well for future levels of voter turnout.

Kaat Smets is lecturer in politics (quantitative methods) at Royal Holloway, University of London.

The skyline of London

The North-South divide
Only a true federal state can break the London monopoly

Britain has a structurally broken economy wedded to a dysfunctional state. Our economy cannot be fixed – to the benefit of all Britons – unless our pre-modern, semi-feudal state is fixed. So, what is it about the British state that is so flawed, so economically counterproductive, and what needs to be done about it?

Our political-economic problems and their social consequences take a spatial form: the North-South divide. They stem from the nature of London’s political economy relative to those of the nations and regions. At their root is the overwhelming concentration of economic, political and cultural power in London. Indeed, we inhabit a country that is the most centralised – and, on some measures, the least democratic – of all the world’s principal, fully developed countries.

Since the days of Empire, British governments – irrespective of party – have predominantly favoured the interests of London elites over those of regional Britons. As London became a major financial centre working to the pulse of the global, rather than the British, economy, the default position of Westminster policymakers was increasingly to privilege financial, commercial and real estate speculation over the sorts of economic activities that were the lifeblood of the British nations and many of the English regions.

Because the UK has a centralised state, policies designed largely in the interests of London’s globally oriented elites have been applied across the regions despite their dramatically different economic structures and, thus, policy needs. The consequence has been the withering of the productive, investment, innovation and skill bases of the regional economies and, with them, the near elimination of decently paid, secure employment for the majority of their populations. Therein lie many of the origins of our current condition: a fractured society with declining political legitimacy, bedevilled by Ukip-inspired xenophobia.

Britain’s regional economies and societies cannot be rejuvenated unless Westminster’s monopoly of domestic economic and budgetary policy is broken. Current plans – such as “city-regions” and “northern powerhouses” – will not break this monopoly. That requires a new kind of state: a modern, thoroughly democratic and innovative state; a state composed of regional governments with economic planning capabilities coupled with high levels of fiscal and policy autonomy. If our regions and nations are to achieve the levels of generalised prosperity of a Bavaria or an Ontario, then Britain needs to be reconstituted as a proper federal state.

Jeffrey Henderson is professor of international development in the University of Bristol. This piece is based on the arguments set out in an article, co-authored with Suet Ying Ho, “The upas tree: the over-development of London and the under-development of Britain”, published in Renewal: A Journal of Social Democracy last year.

Girl taking a selfie with David Cameron

Connecting on social media
Open up two-way communications

There has been a flood of articles this year about the “social media election”, observes Paula Keaveney, a lecturer in public relations at Edge Hill University and the Liberal Democrat candidate for Sefton Central.

“Will this election be ‘won’ by the side with the best ‘social media strategy’? I hope not,” she says. “Because what I’ve seen so far of party social media campaigns is all about quick-fire attention-grabbing messages and repetition.

“And to those who say that social media mean you can ask a quick question and get a quick answer, I say social media also mean huge increases in self-censorship by politicians. The fact that any ‘error’ is pounced on by opponents means anyone writing anything automatically self-censors. That doesn’t mean the technology can’t be used for longer, more discursive debates. But it won’t be while we have the political campaign culture of ‘spot the mistake’.”

Mike Parsons, lecturer in marketing at the University of South Wales, agrees that many politicians are failing to make the most of the medium.

“Politicians continue to employ social media with trepidation, mindful of the danger of online gaffes that can result in a loss of reputation and threaten their political career,” he says. “As a consequence, political use of social media invariably fails to engage in collaborative discourse with the electorate, focusing instead on the broadcasting of campaign messages. This approach to social media exacerbates distrust in politicians and supports the notion of ‘them and us’.”

Yet Parsons believes that with the right approach, social media have the potential to reinvigorate interest in political engagement. To achieve this, politicians need to “put the ‘social’ back into social media”.

“Employing social media to engage in reciprocal communication with the electorate offers politicians the opportunity to create relationships based on mutual understanding and, ultimately, respect. Such engagement could reverse the decline in political engagement, rebuild trust in politicians and lessen the focus on negative campaigning which currently dominates UK politics,” argues Parsons.

THE reporters

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