The Independent Group: a fundamental change or politics-as-usual?
British politics, if you hadn’t realised, is in a state of crisis. With just weeks left to go until Brexit there’s no sign that our leaders in Westminster have any inkling about what to do next. We’re running out of road to kick the can down, and Brexit isn’t the only challenge facing the UK: the future of the NHS is in doubt, the social care system is collapsing, infrastructure projects like HS2 are mired in controversy, all the while social mobility is declining, poverty is on the rise, we’re facing a climate crisis, and who even knows what robotisation means for the future for workers and work?
All these are just a handful of the issues that the political establishment is failing to deal with, and it was in this context that a new political party, the Independent Group, was set up. Formed from 7 MPs who had resigned from the Labour Party, our country, they say, “faces big challenges”, and our broken politics needs “fundamental change”.
It’s indisputable that, as the Independent Group put it, our political system needs “fundamental change”. According to a recent report by Hope not Hate over two thirds of the UK public - a staggering 68% - do not feel that any of the main political parties speakers for them. The Hansard Society’s 2018 Audit of Political Engagement also found deep discontent with the British political system, with satisfaction with the system of governing Britain having fallen seven points to 36% since the audit began in 2004. People’s sense of being able to bring about change in our politics had also fallen by 3 points since 2004, to 34%. For a representative democracy, it is a crisis if people feel that they aren’t being represented, have lost faith in the government to speak for them, and don’t feel they can affect change.
A “different approach” or business-as-usual?
All this is to say we really are in desperate need of a fix for our broken politics. So what are the Independent Group’s solutions, and are they offering the right medicine to cure to the problems faced by the UK? At the moment they have only published an introductory statement, with a more detailed policy offering to follow. But going on the Group’s statement their proposals don’t quite live up to their enthusiastic assertion that they are here to #ChangePolitics.
Let’s take, for example, the Group’s offering on public services. Their statement set out a core belief that “a strong economy means we can invest in our public services”. Tying public service provision to the state of the economy is hardly new and far from radical. In fact this could well have been copied and pasted, with a few tweaks, from Theresa May’s 2018 autumn party conference speech, where she told the audience that “enterprise creates wealth to fund great public services”. So the Group isn’t proposing change here, they’re making a commitment to a business-as-usual approach.
Climate change - arguably the single greatest existential threat to our society - got just a single cursory mention in the Group’s statement. While most politicians - in the UK and around the world - have their heads in the sand about the climate crisis, young people were driven in their thousands to skip school for the climate strike and that political leaders take action. A really game-changing way of doing politics would be to act on the facts, listen to the demands of young people, and make climate crisis mitigation and a sustainable green economy integral a core policy offering. Again, side-lining climate change marks a business-as-usual approach to politics, not a break with the status quo.
The Westminster playbook
Overall, the Group’s statement contained more puffed-up rhetoric than tangible policy. Commitments to “defend the people” and “well-regulated private enterprise” are all well and good. But these are also Rorschach tests, enabling the reader to interpret from the statement whatever they want. “Well regulated” could mean no regulation to some, and regulation to the hilt to others - all these are possible within the vague assertions of the Group’s statement.
This can similarly be seen in the Group’s vague promise of “placing individuals at the heart of decision-making”. Does this mean introducing a proportional representation electoral system, so that people’s votes actually mattered at elections? Or does this mean using citizens’ assemblies more frequently to deliberate on contentious public policy issues? Or does this mean carrying business-as-usual? Afterall, a common refrain of many politicians is that people are already ‘at the heart of decision-making’ - it would be hard to find a politician that would suggest people should be at the fringes of decision-making. So without a firm proposition as to what this actually means it’s impossible to evaluate this statement against the stated objective of ‘changing politics’.
These ambiguities leave open very serious questions, the answers to which have very wide ranging and different implications for British society and democracy. Failing to make tangible commitments to voters is another way in which the Group falls in line with business-as-usual politics, and this is a tactic that voters find particularly frustrating. The British Social Attitudes Survey established that for democracy to have efficacy, the British public expects to be involved in decision-making. The survey found a democratic deficit in in this respect - that is a gap between what people expect from democracy, and those expectations being met: “A quarter of people (24%) are dissatisfied with how well the government engages with the public, believing it to be extremely important that the government explains its decisions to voters but feeling that this does not happen in Britain”. The Group’s approach is therefore business-as-usual insofar as lofty rhetoric and ambiguous promises do not fully meet the expectations of voters to be told, clearly, what decisions are being made on their behalf and why.
There are other signs that the Independent Group is leaning heavily on the Westminster playbook to get power, rather than doing politics differently. The fact that the group has been registered as a corporate entity rather than a political party means that they are very conveniently able to dodge provisions in electoral law and hide their donations from public scrutiny - a tactic preferred by many dodgy donors and corporations who don’t want the public to know they are funding political activity.
The problems the UK is facing are systemic in nature and need radical solutions, yet the Group’s statement reads more like a love letter to the status quo then a pitch to bring root and branch reform to politics as we know it. The statement throws up more questions than it answers, and offers public relations slogans in place of tangible policy solutions. Our political system is desperately broken and so the promise of bringing “fundamental change” is tantalising. But doing democracy differently and fundamentally changing our politics require big ideas and radical solutions, not business-as-usual. What remains to be seen is whether the Group has any big ideas to fix Britain, because their initial offering was found wanting.