Last week Compass Youth hosted an event in London to discuss an issue close to the hearts of many members: political reform. The aim was to submit Compass Youth ideas to the Power 2010 campaign for democratic change. Members took part in workshops and agreed on the best ideas to submit between them.
To put this in some kind of political and historical context is important. Unlike most other countries in the world, democracy in the United Kingdom doesn’t have a date of birth. There’s no written constitution; no Declaration of Independence; no Declaration of the Rights of Man. Parliamentary Democracy has evolved slowly over the last 1000 years. In that time we’ve seen Magna Carta; the evolution of Parliament; the decline of monarchy and aristocracy; universal suffrage; civil rights; human rights; workers rights; rights to freedom of speech, all enshrined in law.
I mention these developments because the movements that led to these changes often started in circumstances similar to the ones in which we met last week: a relatively small gathering of people, in a relatively small space, discussing big ideas.
To give some historical precedents, those familiar with the English Civil War may have heard of the Levellers. They started as a small group of political activists. Many were ex-soldiers. They decided that they had not fought and watched their friends and comrades die to go back to business as usual.
They wanted real change. They printed pamphlets, mobilised support and eventually became so powerful that they were able to go to Oliver Cromwell, the most powerful man in the country, to make an historic demand: that every many in the country be given the right to vote. The electoral franchise at the time was by some estimates just 2% of the adult male population. Sadly this was not to change for two centuries. But the Levellers influenced every democratic movement since, especially the Chartists who re-printed some of their pamphlets. Their writings have even been cited in US Supreme Court rulings. The Levellers were without a doubt the founding fathers of British democratic socialism.
Over three hundred years later in 1977 a small group of political dissidents in Czechoslovakia got together to produce Charter 77, a demand for human rights in a totalitarian state. Though this started as a small group, it was a pivotal development that led to the downfall of Soviet Communism in Eastern Europe.
Inspired by Charter 77, 11 years later a group centre-left academics, writers and activists produced Charter 88 in the UK. For the first time, the ideas that are at the centre of the debate for constitutional change today were at the heart of a movement for political reform. They put issues on the table like Freedom of Information, House of Lords reform, and proportional representation. Some of their goals have been realised, some are half-finished and others are yet to make progress.
It is very much in this tradition that we met to discuss reform last week. The aforementioned groups were not prepared to stand for the system as it stood in their time, and it is to finish the work that they started that has spurred on the Power 2010 campaign and the role of Compass Youth within it.
Campaigns for political reform are as old as politics itself and it is not an issue that gets the pulses of the nation rising. But those who gathered last week and those who will gather for the Power 2010 Convention have much to be concerned about.
Election turnouts are falling. In 1950, the General Election turnout was nearly 84%. In the European Elections this year it was nearer 34%. The current Government commands a majority of 62 in the House of Commons, yet it only received a 35% share of the vote. In the 1980s the last Government changed the country beyond recognition yet it never received a majority of the popular vote. There is still a House of Lords with influence over legislation that is accountable to no-one. Scottish MPs have influence over English matters but not vice versa in many cases. A rotten handful of MPs have used the House of Commons as a cash cow rather than a legislative chamber. And local government has been emasculated by an increasingly powerful centralised state.
This is a broken system that is leaving millions disconnected. To me and many others this disconnection is due to more than just disillusion with politics and politicians. The only thing that will reverse the trends is real change to the way we do things.
The ideas that were proposed last week included proposals centred on proportional representation, open primaries, better accountability, more local democracy, greater freedom of information and the use of direct elections to senior government positions. These ideas will be submitted to the Power 2010 campaign by Compass Youth. If you would like to submit an idea of your own you still can. Visit Power2010 for more details.
2010 will be an important year for politics. Hopefully through events like this
Compass Youth will take its place at the centre of the debate.