democracy

The Trade Union Bill, and getting party funding reform right

The issue of how our parties are funded is at the core of Parliamentary democracy. And today, peers in the House of Lords are debating a major change to the current system in the Trade Union Bill that’s currently going through Parliament.

The change is a major one – but it’s one-sided. By insisting in the Bill that union members should ‘opt-in’ to unions’ political funds, the Government will effectively be cutting Labour’s funding by £6m a year.

Party funding reform is a crucial issue. The Electoral Reform Society can reveal today that 77% of the public believe big donors have too much influence on political parties.

In fact, the Trade Union Bill could be the start of a process which sorts out our hopeless party funding system for good. The public are sick to death of the perceived influence of big donors on parties – and that includes the influence of unions on Labour as well as wealthy private individuals on the Conservatives. A cap on individual donations is one of the measures needed for a cleaner party funding system. Under an opt-in system the money provided to Labour by unions effectively comes from many individuals rather than one ‘baron’, which should make Labour more open to a donations cap.

But we badly need a cross-party deal on party finance reform. Otherwise it simply isn’t sustainable. This stuff can’t be done in isolation against one party, or else we could see decades of unsustainable retaliations as parties get into power and attack their opponents’ source of funding.

Our polling released today also shows that 72% of the public agree or strongly agree that the system of party funding is ‘corrupt and should be changed’ – up from 61% when the same question was asked in 2014.

57% also believe that a ‘state-funded political system would be fairer than the one we currently have’ – up from 41% in 2014.

Fundamentally, campaigners such as ourselves are concerned that the Trade Union Bill is currently one-sided in its approach to reforming Labour’s funding, undermining the ‘Churchill convention’ (named after the man himself) that matters directly affecting political parties be dealt with in a multi-party manner.

But what today’s polling shows is that the public are deeply concerned with Britain’s broken party funding model. Party finances in the UK are in dire need of reform, following years of scandals and voters’ rising disgust about the role of money in our politics.

There’s growing appetite for reforming the way parties are funded, and you can see this among people from across the political spectrum. Measures in the Trade Union Bill to ensure union members have to ‘opt in’ to pay into political funds could form part of a fresh settlement.

But by targeting Labour and not tackling the issue in the round, the Government is risking decades of parties indulging in tit-for-tat raids on each other’s sources of funds. We need all parties to get around the table and deal with this once and for all. Frankly, there is no other way of finding a sustainable solution and avoiding accusations of constitutional gerrymandering.

Now is the time for all parties to get to grips with the mess that is Britain’s party funding system. The fact is, Labour is seen by the public to be at the behest of barons, and the Tories at the behest of bankers. All parties need to tackle the big donor culture which makes party funding an arms race rather than an open democratic process.

The ERS are calling on Peers to back the motion today to set up a cross-party committee on the Trade Union Bill, so that it can form part of a new settlement on party finances across the board.

In 2014 the ERS published ‘Deal or No Deal: How to put an end to party funding scandals’. Read the full report and recommendations here.

This Wednesday, We Have a Chance to Put Fair Votes on the Agenda in Westminster

It’s not an opportunity that comes up very often, so this is an important one: this Wednesday, MPs will have a chance to back proportional representation in Parliament.

May 7th was the most disproportionate General Election result in British history – so it’s about time there was a proper debate in Parliament on switching to a fairer voting system.

The ‘Representation of the People (Proportional Representation) Bill‘ will come before the House of Commons on Wednesday. Proposed by Stalybridge and Hyde MP Jonathan Reynolds, the ‘Ten Minute Rule Motion’ – a form of Private Members’ Bill – is a great opportunity to put PR on the agenda.

There’s just a couple of days to build some momentum behind it – so it’s vital we take action today. The Electoral Reform Society are asking supporters to write to their MPs to ask them to back the Bill and to build some public support behind it.

At the crux of the issue is this: multi-party politics is here to stay, but our old-fashioned two-party system can’t cope with the choices of modern voters. We clearly need a much fairer voting system.

We’re not alone in saying it either – in May, nearly half a million people signed petitions calling for a proportional voting system, joined by five party leaders from across the spectrum, while 61% of people back reform.

Sadly, as it’s a non-government Bill it’s not very likely to pass – but rallying behind it will really help keep the issue on the agenda.

The Bill isn’t perfect: it proposes using the Additional Member System for Westminster elections, rather than our preferred Single Transferable Vote, a proportional system that maximises voter choice. But it does represent a chance for positive change.

As the ERS say in our letter to MPs, “AMS is a tried and tested system, is simple and clear, and is used both in the UK and around the world. It has been shown to let the public kick out unpopular governments, and ensures that governments can’t be elected with tiny majorities. Politics has become far more multi-party since 2010, but our out-dated First Past the Post system cannot keep up with how people’s voting habits have changed.”

Crucially, this Bill is also a chance to find out what MPs think about PR – we can build up a strong database so that we know where they stand and so we can improve our Parliamentary work to keep putting democratic reform on the agenda. We want this Bill to go to the next stage – and while it may not pass, the more support the Bill has outside of Parliament the more support it could have within, too.

Pile on the pressure for PR – write to your MP today to put a fairer voting system on the agenda in Westminster

Originally published on the Electoral Reform Society blog

Democracy matters – we need a debate on devolution

If you’ve not been following the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill going through Parliament at the moment, you’re not the only one. But something exciting is happening this weekend that can finally get the public stuck into the debate.  

Saturday will see a major democratic experiment to find out where citizens think power should lie at the local level. In Sheffield and Southampton, we’re launching ‘Citizens’ Assemblies’ to coincide with the Government pushing through devolution legislation.

The two Citizens’ Assemblies – four-day events in Southampton and Sheffield taking place in October and November – will bring representative samples of the local population together to discuss and decide on the future of local democracy.

With city deals being brokered left, right and centre (no political pun intended), it will be the first time citizens in English regions will be given the chance to deliberate on the question of where power should lie – within a few days of the government’s Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill receiving its second reading in the House of Commons.

All this is being co-ordinated by Democracy Matters, a group of leading academics and the Electoral Reform Society, in a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. They are pilot projects for the sort of deliberative event envisaged by those calling for a UK-wide Constitutional Convention. We want to eventually see a proper national debate about Britain’s constitutional future.

A year on from the Scottish referendum, it’s more vital than ever that the public – particularly in England – have a say on where power should lie in the UK.

As the Government seeks to devolve powers towards local areas, they need to include citizens and not simply deliver their chosen solutions from above.

These Assemblies are a real chance to shape the devolution agenda so that it genuinely involves the people which it affects.

We’re expecting some really interesting stuff to come out of this project – so make sure to follow its progress.

About the Assemblies

These Assemblies have been organised to rigorous academic standards. Each assembly will have 45 members – one will be held in Sheffield with membership drawn from across South Yorkshire; all participants will be members of the public. The other will be held in Southampton with members from across Hampshire; 30 participants will be members of the public and 15 will be local politicians.

Members of the public have been chosen by YouGov to be representative of the local population. Politician members of the Southampton assembly have been invited in proportion to their vote shares.

The Sheffield Assembly (Assembly North) will be chaired by Len Tingle, BBC Yorkshire Political Editor. The Southampton Assembly (Assembly South) will be chaired by Peter Henley, BBC South Political Editor.
The work of each assembly will be based around four phases: learning; consultation; deliberation; and decision.

Each assembly will use a mix of plenary and small-group formats at every stage, in order to facilitate inclusive deliberation. The work of each group will be aided by a trained facilitator and a note-taker.

For more information visit http://citizensassembly.co.uk/ or contact Edward Molloy (edward.molloy@electoral-reform.org.uk)

The Yes campaign may have won the #indyref

Update: The SNP now look on track for 60,000 members after hitting 50,000 yesterday and now standing at 59,000 (as of 1pm Wednesday – no signs of slowing, either). They have overtaken the Lib Dems’ and UKIP’ total British membership numbers by a long stretch. Meanwhile the Scottish Socialists are processing over 2,000 membership applications and the Greens over 3,000 (plus hundreds more in England, too). 

The SNP’s doubled membership means that over 1 in every 100 Scots are now members of the party – a higher proportion than party memebership of ALL parties across the UK as a whole. A back of the envelope calculation puts the membership fees gained from the over 33,000 new recruits shows if they all paid:

  • The recommended fee – £5 a month: The party would rake in £2m in extra subs for the next year
  • The lower fee: £3 a month: £1.2m in extra subs for the year ahead
  • The minimum fee: £1 a month: £400,000 extra for the next year

That’s a lot of money (in addition to the tens/hundreds of thousands that will have been donated over the past week – genuinely). It’s also 33,000 additional foot-soldiers who have an experience of campaigning.

Something incredible is happening in Scotland – people are actually getting excited about democracy. Meanwhile a poll puts the SNP on 49% for Holyrood and catching up with Labour for the Westminster election next year. 

The article below was originally published at Left Foot Forward

With pro-independence parties seeing record-breaking membership growth, the indy camp could be the real winners after all

Who do you think won the Scottish independence referendum on Thursday? You’d probably have a fair claim to say it was the unionist campaign, winning 55 per cent of the vote.

But a few facts suggest that in the long run, it could be the parties that campaigned for independence.

Why? Over the past three days, membership of the SNP has risen by at least 14,000, nearly half of which joined in the 24 hours after polls closed. To put that into perspective, that was the SNP’s total membership ten years ago. They’ve now added that since Thursday night.

This now makes the SNP by far the largest party in Scotland with over 45,000 members – far more than both UKIP and the Lib Dems’ total membership across the whole of the UK. It’s also, according to a Green Party activist I spoke to, nearly four times Labour’s membership in Scotland.

It’s hard to even accurately assess the extent to which people want to sign up: the SNP’s website crashed on Sunday for two hours when 500 tried to join in one hour. There were fascinating stories circulating on social media – such as an extended family of 18 people simultaneously resigning from Labour to join the Nationalists.

This has to be a total rarity in modern British politics at a time when membership of the mainstream parties is stagnant or plummeting. People are, whisper it, actually getting excited about politics.

It’s not just the SNP that is facing this surge either. 2,500 joined the Scottish Green Partybetween polls closing and Saturday evening – a faster rate than the SNP. Earlier this year the Greens had just 1,200 members in Scotland, meaning in a few days they have doubled or more in size. The impact? They could end up with over dozen MSPs in nine month’s time; their highest ever.

It’s hard to fathom the impact that could have on politics north of the border. The combined membership of the England & Wales and Scottish Green Parties is now around half that of the Lib Dems nationally. They’re gaining ground, a fact reflected in the polls, too.

Even the Scottish Socialist Party has seen a minor revival, with another 600 members in the two days following the referendum.

I could go on. But the key issue isn’t the numbers here – as impressive as they are – but the issue of why, and what impact this could have on Scottish politics.

Yes Scotland shared a Facebook status pointing to the astonishing recruitment figures (it was shared over 2,300 times). Of the more than 1000 comments, almost all were from new activists. And many are deeply interesting.

One of the most popular comments appears to sum up the mood:

“I will not lie down and accept this result. I will not suck it up, and move on. Nobody achieved anything in life by rolling over and accepting the status quo. I will continue to hope for an independent Scotland in my lifetime. I’ve never really taken an interest in politics before this referendum, but today I’ve become one of the 4000+ people to join the SNP in the last 24 hours. We are the 45 per cent and we will not be silenced.”

Another:

“We lost the battle but were not losing the war.” Again: “Yesterday we cried, today we move forward with renewed determination to claim what is rightfully ours.”

All these reflect the fact that the referendum was not the end of the road, but perhaps the start of a process. Many were disgruntled with the BBC and the rest of the almost entirely unionist press, 70,000-strong allegations – however ridiculous – of vote rigging, and the apparent reneging on promises to grant further devolution just one day after the referendum.

But they were also impressed by the principled move of Salmond to stand down upon losing the vote, and the vibrant radical grassroots campaign which mobilised working-class people who had long been ignored by neoliberal politics.

Those activists are now becoming party political: “Now that there’s no referendum campaign to be involved in, these people, who have been politicised for the first time in many cases, are looking for some political activity to get involved in – they’re not going back to their sofas,” Edinburgh Greens’ membership secretary Mike Williamson told me.

They also, crucially, have experience of campaigning that will help them in next year’s election. Paper members they shall not be.

The vast reawakening of the democratic spirit in Scotland on the Yes side in the months running up to the #indyref suggests it is a political resurgence that will not go away quietly. We can laugh at the rhetoric of ‘We are the 45 per cent’ [the total Yes vote] – but the major party leaders may not be laughing come next year’s elections. Johann Lamont’s own constituency voted overwhelmingly for yes, after all.

With pro-independence parties all seeing record-breaking membership growth (and thus resource growth – finances and feet on the ground), it looks like the indy camp may be the real winners after all.

The Green Party and Class – 2012 Leadership Race Survey

Despite positive steps forward, there is clearly a perception among the public that the Green Party is a ‘middle-class’ party. And there is a problem of class in wider politics too; the percentage of working-class people in Parliament and council chambers has plummeted from the 1980s to today across all parties (just 4% if MPs now come from manual working-class backgrounds), creating a crisis of political representation for the vast majority of people who are state-educated and have not worked in journalism, the senior civil service or for think tanks and similar ‘elite’ institutions.

In response to this crisis of representation the University of York Green Party has created a short questionnaire for the 2012 Green Party leadership race which aims to raise awareness of the need to change the party’s public perception and to draw out candidate’s views on the issue, as well as their life experience and own perceptions of class in the modern era.

Other parties, notably Labour (at long last) are beginning to address the issue of working-class under-representation – the Green Party, a radical and fast-growing party, cannot be left behind. The proposal coming up to Green Party conference for the leader to be paid a wage is a positive development – one of the main demands of the Chartists in the 19th Century was that MPs be paid so that working-class people were able to stand and be elected. The same should go for party leadership.

So candidates have been emailed being asked to write a maximum of 100-words for each of the five questions on the topic of class.

This is intended as a contribution to the debate around the future of the party, in the candidates’ own words. Please share the results, when published here online, around your local party groups.

Voting begins at the start of August – this is hoped to be a positive contribution to the leadership race and the debates around it.

Responses will be published initially exclusively at the York Young Greens blog and here early in August when voting begins.

The questions are as follows:

1.       What steps, if any, will you take to improve working-class recruitment, representation and election both inside and outside the party if you are elected? E.g. national recruitment strategy, shifting emphasis in interviews etc.

2.       Do you agree with recent proposals (outside the party) for working-class shortlists/quotas to improve the representation of ordinary people in politics?

3.       What life experience do you have that you believe would make you appeal to ordinary people? E.g. working on the minimum wage, living in affordable/council housing, state education etc.

4.       How would you define yourself in terms of class, and do you see this as important to your politics? (Please write a,b, c, d, other/NA and your explanation below)

5.       Have you:

a) Ever attended a Russell Group university such as Oxford/Cambridge?

b) Ever attended a private school?

Democracy and direction – lessons from the unions

There are now probably more than a dozen significant anti-fees and cuts organisations involved in the fight against the government’s right-wing agenda. There’s been varying amounts of co-operation between these campaigns since November, with activists from the vast array of networks coming together in the national Days of Action. The media are not incorrect when they say that a large number of these protests are organised via Facebook and Twitter. Certainly much of the action conducted in Cornwall has been done this way, with students, Labour party members and the emerging Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance in the foreground.  But will this movement fizzle out without a leader? Or will it merely lead to a more grassroots-led campaign?

Laurie Penny has been arguing extensively in the New Statesman for a more ‘democratic’ approach, that is, a campaign run by students which has no fixed leadership. But the worry is that the movement loses momentum and coherence if it continues in the form of unaccountable groups, setting up events through Facebook in the hope that everyone else follows suit. But another frightening aspect of the criticisms of leadership concerns the casual dismissal of trade unions. Coordinated strike action will have a bigger impact on the government than a few thousand getting kettled in Parliament Square.

Part of the fear of leadership stems from the NUS’s timidity, nay, aversion, when it comes to supporting the student movement. Aaron Porter has truly failed young people in his attacks on the Millbank occupiers, his support for cuts (as leaked to the Telegraph) and his failure to back other protests after the fantastic first demonstration in London in November. But, as Owen Jones argues in a recent Left Futures article, the failure of the NUS leadership is not a failure of the idea of leadership in general. Len McCluskey of Unite has been immensely vocal in his opposition to the cuts, calling for a programme of strikes. Similarly, Matt Wrack of the FBU, figures in the CWU, and most clearly, Mark Serwotka of the PCS (which leads the ‘There is an Alternative’ campaign), are all indispensable presences in the anti-cuts movement.

There is no way around it. Unions are democratic. They are organised. And they have 7 million members. Student support for the unions should not merely be tactical though. It is a moral issue. The working class will lose out more because of the cuts than middle-class students. 1.3m jobs are at risk because of the government’s economic plans. The higher rate of VAT will punish families. Cuts to housing benefit will force 300,000 out of their homes – in London alone. The assault on welfare – £18bn in cuts – is going to be detrimental to both workers and the unemployed. Students have to stand alongside workers as a matter of principle – the principle of solidarity.

This sense of solidarity is in danger of being broken. The Socialist Workers’ Party, famous for their unsteady reputation on the left and the right, have organised demonstrations about education in Manchester and London on the same day that protesters from Youth Fight for Jobs are having theirs in Manchester. The SWP are good at mobilising activists, making it likely that the marches are well attended. But on the Facebook January 29th protest event page, Youth Fight for Jobs say ‘its unfortunate that some of the education campaigns are organising separate events’ – as if having action on a national scale is a bad thing. Having protests in two cities is not divisive – it will probably boost the turnout by widening the ability of people to actually get there. Having an elected leadership that could organise without this kind of jealousy would clear up some of these disputes.

When it comes to the fight-back, we have to accept there will be differing opinions on how to organise and what our message is. This is inevitable: but with no clear leadership, our message may become obscure. Are we fighting against education cuts or all public sector cuts? And if there are hundreds of bickering organisations are we not weakened? The solution could be a consolidation of the networks into a major democratic force with an unambiguous direction, which can then function on the same platform as the unions – not in competition with the unions.

Merging the different campaigns may not be the most popular suggestion, but it’s one that needs to be seriously considered before we decline into a disparate sprawl of disconnected individuals. The last thing we should be thinking of doing is eradicating the notion of leadership.

Striking a Balance – Jegan Wood argues for a more considered approach in the student struggle

We in Britain, and in many countries the world over, are suspended in constant debate over the values on which our society is based. Some argue that tradition should guide our decisions, and that our goal as a society is in defence of ourselves, and ourselves alone, while others argue that we must seek no less than perfect co-operation and universal equality of means.

However, the ideas that seem perhaps etched most boldly into our culture are those of Freedom and Utility. While governments in succession from as far back as you care to look have promised us ‘Freedom’ and ‘Opportunity’ while claiming to “do what is best for everyone”, we wonder whether or not the terms still carry any meaning. They have been overused, parroted and distorted so many times that we are left feeling dizzy.

This should not be so! We in Britain may have no single written constitution, but we have the principle, unwritten as it may be, that any government claiming rule over this society must do so in the people’s best interest and its sole aim must be to balance the desires and grievances of its populace.

The governments ‘Mandate to govern’ is, as in any democracy, is derived only from their claim to ‘do what’s best for all of us’ and as such we have a duty to speak out on our own behalf against actions such as the cuts when they in fact jeopardise our best interests.

However the most salient point, and one that can be gleaned in light of violence at Millbank, is that aggression proves and symbolises nothing but capacity for aggression itself.  If any marking impact is to be made upon the debate over measures such as tuition fees it is not to be through shouting “Free education for all” it is to be made through convincing the government that their proposal is not the compromise that they first justified it as and pushing for concessions.

And in haste of feet, flash of temper and rush of adrenaline, pause a second and consider; the streets are merely the platform, the voice is the weapon.