We’ve all heard it. I’ve heard it – on doorsteps, in the back of cabs and in cafes. “Politicians,” people will say, “you’re all the same.” Now, I balk at anyone who compares me to the blond baboon who is our current prime minister, but there is no doubt that trust in politics – and in politicians – is at an all-time low.
People just don’t believe we’ll deliver what we say we will. They don’t believe we want to listen or to understand their lives. And they don’t believe we are able to do much to make their lives better. Lots of factors have contributed to this: the expenses scandal, the rise of fake news and, let’s be honest, too many politicians either telling lies (don’t get me started on the £350m for the NHS) or not giving a straight answer when they’re asked a straight question.
A decade of Tory austerity has stripped away vital services and hollowed out high streets. Millions of people have simply lost faith in the ability of government to make their lives better. They’re angry about decisions made far away by people they don’t think have much of a clue about the stresses and strains of their daily lives.
All of us in the Labour party should be concerned about the growing gap between voters and the politicians they elect to represent them. Not just because we’re democrats but because listening to people, being bothered about their lives and being rooted in their communities, is the only way we will win again. Our challenge is to restore both trust in Labour as a party of government and trust in democracy as the best means of delivering what the public wants. It’s a big task – but here are six things I would do to achieve this.
First, we need to be honest, even if that’s uncomfortable. On social care we need to be clear that looking after the elderly will require people to contribute more in tax. When we’re asked whether immigration is too high, instead of fudging a response, let’s say what we think: no, it isn’t. The public isn’t stupid – people know when we’re trying to avoid saying something.
Second, we need a new approach in order to reach decisions on long-term challenges. On climate breakdown, we need a plan that involves the public much more. Citizens’ assemblies are increasingly used around the world to build consensus. In Ireland, they helped pave the way for the historic changes on abortion, while in Poland they improved government response to major flooding. It’s time we used them here.
Third, we need to recognise that people want more control over how decisions that affect their local communities are made. The UK is one of the most centralised countries in the world. While a step in the right direction, the “northern powerhouse” risks bypassing my region of the West Midlands and focusing solely on a handful of cities. Lisa Nandy is absolutely right that we need to devolve economic power away from Westminster and learn from what Labour councils around the country are doing.
Fourth, we need people to feel their votes count. Under our first-past-the-post system, almost half of those who voted (14.5 million people) did so for a candidate who lost. Many who live in “safe” seats have given up on voting altogether. So, as well as long overdue Lords reform, we need to reform our electoral system so that parliament better reflects votes cast.
Fifth, people should be automatically enrolled on the electoral register, as happens in countries such as Sweden and Finland. Individual voter registration has meant millions of people are either not registered or are registered at the wrong address. If we reduce the minimum voting age to 16, as we should, then people could be auto-registered when they are issued with a national insurance card.
Finally, if people are to trust our electoral process, we urgently need to combat fake news during campaigns. Apart from Twitter, which has banned political adverts, the social media giants aren’t stepping up. The result? A recent study found that nine in 10 of the Tories’ online ads during the election contained “misleading” information. We need a new public body to regulate online political ads, funded by a levy on the cost of purchasing the advertising space.
These ideas might sound radical to some, but to me they’re just common sense. Unless we modernise the way we do politics, more and more people will give up on the idea that their participation is meaningful. Politics can change the world – but only if we change politics.
• Jess Phillips is the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley and party leadership candidate