It was the American political scientist Charles Tilly who referred to ‘democracy as a lake' that should be measured by its depth and wideness. Here in the UK we have a diverse and deep society – but our democratic institutions belong to another era. They are no longer capable of giving voice and power to the different groups who make up our modern plural society.
It is true that the British constitution was once the envy of the world, but it has fallen into disrepute of late, its last vestige of self-esteem felled by the expenses crisis.
Earlier this week, James Purnell, who resigned today, wrote about how and why empowerment matters. He was broadly right.
There is now a clear and urgent need for a new politics that redistributes power to people, in all their diversity and complexity, and opens up spaces for important public debate outside the party-dominated routines of Westminster. It is with this in mind that the Muslim Council of Britain is supporting the POWER2010.org.u campaign to reinvigorate UK democracy. The campaign is currently drawing up a five-point plan for change through a mass online vote involving thousands of people across the country – the aim is to give everyone a say on how our country should be run.
The central problem we have in Britain is an over-centralised and antiquated state whose constitution is no longer suited to represent the interests of the modern pluralist nation we have become. Power is centralized in the hands of government ministers and Whitehall officials who invoke “parliamentary sovereignty” to justify the loose, flexible power they enjoy.
If we want to preserve our liberties and hold government in check, there is an urgent need to make government more accountable to Parliament and Parliament to the people
The evidence being unearthed by the Chilcot inquiry provides a salutary reminder of the dangers to our country when Cabinet and Parliament are sidelined with power centralised in a small clique of decision-makers not subject to proper scrutiny or opposing views. Democracy must be stronger, it must be brought closer to the citizen – of whatever faith or creed. That is why we back recall in POWER2010.org.uk.
A right to recall would make MPs directly answerable to the people they are in Parliament to serve and represent by allowing constituents to sack their MP when they are badly let down. Would so many have voted for the disastrous Iraq war, given the strength of public opinion, had they known they would be accountable to their constituents rather than just the whips?
Democracy isn’t just right in principle: it makes for better policy. And that is why people must be given an effective say in decision-making. Currently communities are ignored or hood-winked through sham consultations. It’s time for a vibrant localism to enfranchise communities in the policy-making process, that’s why we back stronger local government in POWER2010.org.uk.
As well as deepening democracy with an opening up of government to proper scrutiny and accountability, it must urgently be broadened if politicians are to adequately represent their constituents in all their diversity.
The two-party system we have is a hangover from a time when society was divided between two relatively homogenous and mutually antagonistic social classes. This may have served us well in the past, but it no longer reflects the diversity of our society: the many different cultures, religions, and ways of life, that make up modern Britain. Parties must adapt to become sincere developers of ideology and participation. They must open to diverse voices and be prepared to tolerate internal dissent. They should be internally democratic so that members can set the agenda and not just a small cabal at the top. The POWER2010.org.uk proposal to require parties to have democratic constitutions would do that and so is why the MCB backs that too.
People will only feel ownership of democracy if they have a say on its shape – it must not be presented as a cold system, take it or leave it. Discussion on democratic renewal, so in vogue, must break beyond the usual suspects and fully engage our wide and the deep British society – so that a new, re-fashioned politics can work for all citizens.
The empowerment of all Britons across the nation is an urgent task - including that of Muslims. The MCB is throwing its full weight behind the promise of Power 2010.org.uk - not just in encouraging British Muslims to vote and participate, but by actively campaigning for all British citizens to step up and learn for themselves what is at stake - be that with the rising threat of xenophobia, our ability to play a full part in society, our international or European alliances, domestic policies and our capability to accommodate pluralism. We sincerely hope that this acts as an overdue catalyst for reform which is needed; a responsive and responsible system which cares for the weakest in its purview, not solely that which protects and services the interests of the strong.
Dr Bari is Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain