2 March, 2006: Abusing Power

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So, that Power Inquiry report on the future of our democracy, eh? What? You haven't read it? Shame on you! Too long, you say? Frankly, I was astonished that it was possible to summarise (nay, executively summarise) what's wrong with this country in only thirteen pages of not-very-closely-typed text. You probably aren't awaiting with bated breath my opinion of this masterwork, but since I spent part of this week making an annotatable version of the report available online, I think I have as much right as anyone to bore you with my views of it, so I shall.

You will not, I think, be very surprised to hear that I don't think much of it. I happened to pick up a copy of the Daily Mail the other day, which carried on one of its pages a headline screaming that ``under new proposals'' sixteen-year-olds might be given the vote. Shocking! Well, you might say, how very typical of the Mail to focus on one tiny recommendation of the report and rubbish the rest by implication. And indeed you might be right, except that that's exactly how the report's authors want you to treat it:

These three imperatives [embodied in a series of recommendations] stand or fall alongside each other. The implementation of only one or two of the three will not create the re-engagement with formal democracy which many people now want. Cherry picking -- a folly repeated time and time again by our political masters -- will not work.

... or, to put it another way, while the recommendations of the Power commission may appear to be a random selection from the wish-lists of a variety of special interests, each is in fact an inseparable part of a complete programme which must be enacted fully if it is not to fail. While you or I might not see the connection between (to pick two random examples) implementing electoral registration at the time of allocation of National Insurance numbers and preventing anyone under the age of forty from sitting in the House of Lords, the Power Commission sees all, and in their wisdom they see that neither can be done without the other (or, indeed, without any of their other 28 recommendations).

(You might also wonder why an outfit which claims to be in favour of the decentralisation of power is in favour of compulsory national registration, a position from which even New Labour have backed away by a micron or two over the last few weeks. Again, I presume that us lesser mortals must bow to our betters in this case.)

This is not to say that there is nothing to like about ``Power's'' (as they insist on referring to themselves) recommendations. Some of them read perfectly sensibly -- for instance,

The closed party list system to have no place in modern elections

-- is laudable, though (and this is probably my fault for reading too many of the pronouncements of the Labour party) I do wonder what they mean by a modern election? And what about other types of party list systems? Are they therefore OK? Another example:

Limits should be placed on the power of the whips.

Yes, but what sorts of limits? And how are they to be applied?

The realignment of constituency boundaries should be accelerated.

They don't express an opinion on what the criteria for constituency boundaries ought to be. (You might, by the way, suspect I'm being unfair by quoting from the summary only. The full report appears to be just as uninformative.)

Other proposals are charmingly naive:

Donations from individuals to parties should be capped at 10,000, and organisational donations capped at 100 per member, subject to full democratic scrutiny within the organisation.

Even the dimmest accountant would surely be able to construct N ``organisations'' for his client to join, each of which could donate 100, for a total donation of 10,000 + 100 N.

Meanwhile, anyone who cares seriously about the English language will probably be bashing their head against nearby items of furniture by the time they've read more than a few paragraphs:

Power has set its recommendations within the context of a changed society. ... There have to be real opportunities and spaces where the changing values in our society can be fed into politics.

-- surely the purpose of an ``executive'' summary is to cut the waffle and leave only the substantive points? Perhaps that would have left the document a bit threadbare. And is the second sentence I've quoted intended to be normative or descriptive?

`Democracy hubs' should be established in each local authority area. These would be resource centres based in the community where people can access information and advice to navigate their way through the democratic system.

What the hell is a ``democracy hub''? Perhaps (as in the section on ``downloading power'') somebody has decided to co-opt some IT terminology so that their document seems more up-to-date. Don't they know that democracy switches would be far more efficient?

It's all a bit sad, really. It's plainly consumed quite a lot of the time of a fair number of well-intentioned people but they have little to show for it; and some of what they do have has already got in to the wrong hands, where presumably it will prove dangerous. The best that we can hope for, I suppose, is that it provokes some interesting arguments, or if not, disappears without trace.

Update: corrected some typos -- thanks, Helen.

Copyright (c) 2006 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.