Six months ago I stood down from the Labour frontbench after nine years, to take up an exciting full time job in education. I still attend the Lords to vote and speak, but I have enjoyed having some distance to reflect on politics in this country.
Outside of Westminster and the media, most people say the same thing: “I’m not really interested in politics…they’re all the same.” I’ve heard that on doorsteps for over twenty years, accompanied by declining turnouts at elections, but I’ve rarely stopped to really drill into what people are saying.
That changed last month when 85% of voters in Scotland showed they were deeply interested in politics. When politics became relevant to them. Whilst the Yes campaign lost, there was a strong sense that voters on both sides wanted politics to change significantly. I don’t believe Scottish voters are unusual.
At one level “they’re all the same” could be about people in politics. Too many private school and Oxbridge educated white males – like me. Too many who’ve never achieved anything outside politics, and too much over-promotion of intellect and under-promotion of empathy.
But reflect longer and there are perhaps two other aspects where it may look like “they’re all the same”.
they’re all the same
First, is the appearance that they care more about winning power than using it. I know the vast majority of politicians are in it for the right reasons but the entire political culture is geared around Westminster elections and the positioning needed to win them.
The middle ground is where elections are won and so parties disproportionately focus on how to win votes and craft policies to appeal to the same few electors – leaving everyone else feeling irrelevant. It exposes politicians as being inauthentic; because what they feel is hidden behind what the middle ground tells them they want to hear.
To the disengaged this looks like a game. A game where negative campaigning wins. That dwells on image. That does so because political parties can’t risk setting out a vision that describes doing anything profoundly different, in case it loses the election.
This is the second problem. The way politics is done hasn’t changed much since the Empire. The debates for decades have been about the role of the state, and the balance of tax and spend. Now the main UK parties seem to agree on cuts and balancing the budget, but with a heated debate about which benefits to cut and how much tax to give away. But it all sounds very similar.
The old ways of doing things are now as useful as Stone Age tools in the Bronze Age
An ageing population, climate change, globalisation, technological change, indebtedness – all the great challenges facing us mean the current paradigm must change. The old ways of doing things are now as useful as Stone Age tools in the Bronze Age.
The case for wholesale change in the way representation, executive decision-making and law making is done has never been stronger. By happy coincidence the public are desperate for a new way of doing things too. Many politicians are starting to see it too but like music industry bosses waking up to Napster and iTunes a decade ago, they don’t know what to do. Meanwhile the destructive populism of UKIP is allowed to thrive in the vacuum.
There are no easy prescriptions to the sickness sweeping our politics. But I would start with looking at what is going on in the new economy.
In their 2010 book Macrowikinomics, Dan Tapscott and Anthony Williams offer some clues.
They start with the story of how Ushahidi was used in the 2010 Haiti earthquake to massively improve the effectiveness of disaster response. This crisis mapping site was developed over a weekend by a Kenyan lawyer in 2008, following disputed elections. When the Haiti earthquake struck it took an hour for the same platform to start recruiting the global Haitian diaspora, from a basement in Boston, to translate, categorise and geo-locate thousands of text messages in real time. They used Skype to then relay information to search and rescue teams in Port-au-Prince and respond to requests from the World Food Program and the US military. This bottom up technology proved way more effective than observation on the ground.
This is a social application of the disruptive technology that is the heart of the sharing economy.
The Linux free open source software, that is now in everything from BMW cars to Android phones, has spawned a $50,000,000,000 Linux economy. There are many other examples where co-production of services by consumers is creating massive value and disrupting whole industries, most recently Airbnb. Many of these “prosumer” products are highly resource efficient, empowering of the public and are growing really fast.
What if these forces were embraced by government? What if the sharing economy was accompanied by a sharing society? Could we design public services to cut out the middle layer, the agents, the managers, the bureaucrats, and directly connect consumers and professionals?
There are signs that some are starting to do this.
- Fix my Street, here in the UK, is a long standing example of changing the relationship between local people and local government.
- I met a group from China last week who told me about their system of national care credits, where the care you give can be exchanged in the future for care you receive.
- The US Patent Office has moved to using the public to check patent applications – the volumes became unmanageable and so they had to crowd source it to keep up with innovation (if patents can be effectively regulated by the public, why not replace the House of Lords with mechanisms for the public to improve legislation instead?).
- TES Global operates a platform for teachers to share their teaching resources. The network has over 6.5 million members downloading over ten items per second.
Truly designing digital mutualism for public services ought to be a no-brainer for progressive politicians. It is putting power wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many not the few. It is the co-operative movement re-born in a post-industrial age. But is does mean those with power and influence choosing to give it up – including at the top of the Labour movement.
Embracing a new political paradigm is a big ask. Are we ready for strong government but less active government? For public sector innovation, ending the cult of the policy expert, and being open, transparent and collaborative?
The prize is better services, more personal and at less cost. It depends on rebuilding trust out of the trust we have to share our homes on Airbnb, rather than out of the ashes of the expenses scandal.
This sharing socialism may not be the new paradigm. But I am convinced that the old paradigm is over. If we don’t find a new one fast we will be left behind, and people will find a new politics.
Jim Knight is a member of the House of Lords and Managing Director of Online Learning at TES Global.