Making Votes Matter – The First Step in Re-Imagining Politics

Bruce+Nixon.jpg

A guest blog by Bruce Nixon, author, speaker, blogger and activist (pictured, left)

In the 21st Century, I believe we need a completely different political leadership model.

Until now, much of human history has been about building empires and nations fighting each other for power and resources. The British Empire, backed by a huge navy, was the most successful example. We were the best at war. Now collaboration needs to be the name of the game.

The challenges facing humanity today are existential: we’ll self-extinct unless we reverse climate chaos and destruction of our habitats. We risk nuclear war unless we learn to resolve conflict without violence. Collaboration between nations offers the possibility of vastly greater wellbeing for human beings and all life. That vision led to the creation of the United Nations after World War Two, and now in the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we need to take that endeavour up a level.

In its extreme form old leadership leads to horrendous crimes against humanity. The Arab Spring, offering the hope of democracy in nations ruled by despots, was crushed. Horrendous crimes against humanity are still being committed in Syria by a leader unwilling to compromise. News reports often show human suffering with babies, children and their parents the victims in these war-torn countries. Similar atrocities have been committed in Myanmar against the Rohingya people. There is a danger that the hopes of the Turkish people for democracy and a solution for Kurds will be destroyed by President Tayyip Erdogan. But as an Egyptian friend of mine once said: “You cannot force democracy on countries not ready for it.” Catalonia is another example of the need for building consensus and compromise.

British politics is bedevilled by old-style leadership. It is about winning power and imposing change when what matters most is the wellbeing of all. Under the current adversarial system, leaders put party before national interest. One of the consequences is a deeply divided nation and policies that do not work. Conservative and Labour alike are divided over various forms of Brexit or remaining in the European Union. Despite Corbyn’s declared intention to democratise Labour and give power to constituents, the reality is internal factions are still fighting for control of the party, as so vividly illustrated by the split of the new Independent Group.   

I listen to the usual Radio 4 Today formula. Put two politicians with opposite views together and let them fight it out on air. Often they are unable to listen to each other, they talk over each other and cannot wait to get their points in. I for one am not keen on this approach and usually switch off. It contributes to a general gloom and pessimism about British politics. Essentially it is fighting talk, when people are actually looking for vision and hope.

In Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, a kind of warrior mentality is fostered by the opposing rows of seats in the antiquated chamber. During debates,  politicians vie to see who can be the wittiest combatant in the arena rather than having a sensible inquiry into what will work best. Wit and combat skills do not necessarily have anything to do with outstanding leadership. On the contrary.

We learn by making mistakes. How refreshing it would be if Tony Blair said “I apologise for the appalling consequences of the Iraq war but I have learned from this”. He would surely earn great respect? Gordon Brown did well in handling the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis but he might well say, “I made a mistake when I continued to use PFI contracts”. PFIs, in my opinion, are a way of avoiding borrowing appearing on government books and outsourcing services. The more recent Carillion collapse has precipitated a complete rethink about outsourcing.

One party government not only leads to incompetence, it wastes potential leadership talent. It causes distress amongst people who have worked hard to create good systems - for instance in the NHS - only to be swept away overnight by a new government. It also causes distress and alienation amongst people who have a different view and feel disempowered and unrepresented. This applies to people working in schools, the NHS and other public services who are not involved in vital decisions.

Consensus design or collaborative design involving the whole system is required. No one party has a monopoly of good ideas. It is increasingly recognised that cross-party collaboration, in a Commission, is required to create long-term strategies for such vital systems as the nation’s health, economic policy and education. Cross-party collaboration works well in Parliamentary select committees.

So how should we re-imagine our democracy in a collaborative way? Here are my ideas:

  • For a start, we need Proportional Representation for national, regional and local government elections - this is the single most important and urgent change we need to make to UK politics. Without it, we don’t have real democracy.

  • It would be transformative to have a Citizen-led Convention to address all the other democratic issues in the UK and determine a written Constitution.

  • We'd all be better off if there were equal numbers of female and male MPs in Parliament, and we also need fair representation for Black, Asian and ethnic minorities.

  • All the evidence points to the sense and value of giving 16 and 17 year olds the vote - let’s do it.

  • Devolution of power from Westminster to regions, local government and communities is long overdue - i.e. the principle of subsidiarity.

  • A democratically-selected reviewing chamber should replace the unelected House of Lords.

  • As our Parliament is the principal decision-making body of Government, why not have a First Minister as head of Government elected by Parliament as a whole?

  • While we’re at it, let’s have total recall for all elected politicians, a cap on individual funding, complete disclosure and an end to the “revolving door”.

I believe we should re-imagine political leadership by considering the following points.

Leaders should be compassionate because compassion is arguably the most important factor in making decisions. They should consider themselves in service, rather than in power, and exemplify the model of leader as host not hero. This means they need to have presence rather than charisma, be a leader of leaders who can get people into a room, involve all stakeholders and use Citizens’ assemblies to make decisions.

Other characteristics include:

  • The ability to look into the future, think strategically, and collaborate to bring about change.

  • Being models of good leadership for others; valuing difference, using non-violent communication and deep listening.

  • The ability to unite a highly talented team.

  • Being internationalist - wanting all nations to flourish - and acting as peacemakers.

  • Being inclusive, involving diverse people in creating a vision for the future. Standing for diversity.

  • Having integrity - being truthful, values-based, able to admit mistakes, and putting the national interest first.

  • Not engaging in silly point scoring.

In my experience, women often make better leaders than men.

Britain should be among the nations setting an example for the world. We have a choice. Do we continue with an outdated democracy or do we collaborate to bring about fundamental change? It won’t happen unless many more of us decide to get involved in politics and campaign for positive change.

What you can do to use your power:

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