To defend political democracy, we must change how we do politics

David Blunkett sets out concrete ideas for the future of politics.

Few among us have been untouched by the major changes of the past five years. The crash that unfolded from 2008 saw jobs lost, an enormous rise in the cost of living, and economies retracting and failing across Europe (including our own).

It was in the United Kingdom that we could see most visibly both the problem for, and the failure of, traditional political action. The inability to save the rest of the economy from the shortcomings of both domestic and international banking would have been totally catastrophic. The failure was not the actions taken but, paradoxically, not explaining that this was one moment of our recent history where political democracy was in the ascendant, essential to saving us from those very unaccountable forces which exercise such overwhelming power.

But the last five years of political and economic turmoil has resulted in politics and politicians losing trust and confidence by the people on whose behalf action is taken.

Faith in democratic institutions has fallen to dangerously low levels, as demonstrated in the 2012 Audit of Political Engagement by the Hansard Society. Their survey revealed the proportion of the public who say they are "very" or "fairly" interested in politics has dropped by 16 per cent and now stands at 42 per cent, falling below 50 per cent for the first time since the audits began.

This is problematic in two ways. First, a widespread disengagement with the political process aids extremist candidates. Demagogues will always seek to exploit those people frustrated by the mainstream parties who seem unresponsive to their concerns, but the success of George Galloway in Bradford West in March 2012 was a warning that we must not be complacent.

Second, it gives rise to "technocrats". It could be described as nothing short of a coup in terms of what occurred in Greece, with the removal of the Prime Minister, and in Italy, with the removal of both the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.

Britain is not exempt from this growing trend. Peter Kellner, President of YouGov, tested in spring 2012 the proposition "Britain would be governed better if our politicians got out of the way, and instead our ministers were non-political experts who knew how to run large organisations". Almost as many people agreed, 38 per cent, as disagreed, 43 per cent.

But it is at this moment we need politics and, dare I say it, politicians more than ever. Both to articulate the language of priorities, as described by Aneurin Bevan, but also to mediate and decide between contradictory demands from the public and short term pressures alongside long term imperatives. How much should we cut spending; do we need to raise taxes; how do we structure our health and education systems – making progress on these complex issues can be met only by elections, political engagement and democracy.

Yet in order to defend politics and therefore political democracy, we need to change the way in which we "do" our politics. Today, I have set out several concrete suggestions that will help us achieve this.

For government to directly support mutual action and key campaigns would be unusual but not unthinkable. In the spring of 2012, Which? organised, under the heading of The Big Switch, almost 40,000 people coming together to negotiate a much better personal deal in relation to domestic energy consumption. The winning tariff from Co-operative Energy saved consumers £183 per year. However, the campaign was extraordinarily complicated and the energy companies difficult to deal with. Government support for such initiatives would be transformational.

Similarly, nurturing the process of getting people to run their own facilities locally can be seen as one of the few positive developments from the austerity agenda. There are good examples in North America of how services have been reshaped to offer this new way of meeting need. In Oregon in the USA, for example, people with mental health conditions are helped to live independent lives through a personal budget. They are assigned an advisor to identify goals and how to best use the budget to buy goods and services which will help them achieve these aims. "Co-delivery" would help people to help themselves.

At the heart of pioneering a new approach service delivery, we also need new finance mechanisms to help tackle the widening gap between rich and poor. This should include lifelong accounts developed jointly between the individual and contributed to through government funding. A return to mutual forms of saving and investment, including local and regional investment banks, must also be considered. And the development of microcredit should be utilised as a way to provide acceptable rates of interest to millions of people caught up through exploitative levels of APR, as well as an engine for bottom-up job creation.

And at the centre of all this, we must refocus politics on core issues that matter most to people. Taking on the challenges of an ageing population and affordable retirement, and mobilising civil society through volunteering (including direct support to the million young people out of work and training) will require engagement, creative thinking and determination.

By placing the power of government behind innovative and mutual self-help and successful political campaigning, it would be possible to foster a new spirit of engagement with the political process. Above all, we need to think again as to how best to touch those who feel alienated not only from politics but from the process of public life and decision-taking. In other words, from the society in which they live.

In Defence of Politics Revisited, by David Blunkett MP with a foreword by Ed Miliband MP, is available in full on his website

David Blunkett has published a pamphlet titled "In Defence of Politics Revisted". Photograph: Getty Images
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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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