Politics is in the doldrums. People are disillusioned. Our democracy is under threat.
Who will save us?, asks Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna.
Why, Chuka Umunna will, replies Chuka Umunna in today’s Observer.
I must declare an interest in the progress of the notoriously modest MP for Streatham, as I live in his constituency, but it’s fair to say the piece meets his usual standards of depth and consistency.
Lib Dem blogger Mark Thompson deals elsewhere with the remarkably tribal way Chuka proposes to end tribal politics, so instead I thought it would be worth looking at the article’s proposals for democratic renewal.
Take his view on devolution, for example:
“…in a world that is less deferential, people resent policies being imposed on them from Westminster – communities want to be empowered to do things for themselves. We made a good start in office with devolution in London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with regional development agencies across England, to push power down and out. This is an unfinished project.”
Wait a second. Regional devolution isn’t “unfinished” – it was resoundingly rejected by the people of North East England in the 2004 referendum. It’s dead in the water for the very good reason that voters don’t want it.
Is Umunna seriously arguing that one of the reasons people have lost faith in party politics is that on one rare occasion the Blair government was forced to listen to what the people said? It’s hard to see how ignoring a referendum result and resurrecting a process nobody supports would help to restore democracy.
Or how about his prescription for infrastructure:
“Many in businesses have told me that short-term political considerations risk standing in the way of the long-term investment. So, as Ed Balls has said, it is for this reason that we would, if elected, set up an independent infrastructure commission to end dither and delay, and to build cross-party consensus on big infrastructure projects that are, by their nature, multiple-parliament endeavours.”
So the solution to political failure to deliver infrastructure is to place decisions in the hands of a quango. Given that much of the “dither and delay” Umunna wants to end is caused by the concerns and objections of people affected by the plans, how will empowering unelected quangocrats to over-rule them help to fix our democracy?
Then there’s the question of the unions. For Umunna,
“the 3 million working men and women who are members of the trade unions that sit inside the Labour family will give our party a head start in addressing [falling party membership].”
He marries that with praise for Ed Miliband’s floundering reforms to the union link (the Shadow Business Secretary is not just handsome, presentable and modest – he’s loyal, too, see?).
And yet, in an article considering problems with democracy, failures of institutions and the rot of cliquey unaccountability, he fails to mention the reason for those reforms – the attempts by one of the Labour Party’s biggest donors, Unite, to subvert democratic selection processes and seize control of entire constituencies.
There is an urgent need to deal with falling turnout, political alienation and the failings of the Westminster establishment to understand and attract voters. We have written a lot about how to start restoring a grassroots Conservative party, allied with a strong centre right movement, and we’ll be doing plenty more on the topic in the coming year.
But is the answer regionalisation, disregarded referenda, quangos set up to overrule planning concerns and silence on the scandal wracking the Labour Party from the inside? On this evidence, I’m not sure Chuka Umunna is the saviour of democracy after all.