Politics can be an extremely insular pursuit, a profound irony in that it is very much about the people. Any conflicts take on an outsized importance to us, and we lose track of how little it resonates with the public at large. In spite of some progress towards transparency, much of politics remains removed from the people it purports to represent. We should commit to shedding more light on politics in general.
The last few years have not been without progress in bringing transparency to governing. The House of Commons, in particular, has made strides, galvanized by the expenses scandal. Published expenses, the register of interests, and declarations of hospitality received are all steps in the right direction.
There could be greater transparency on how and why Lords are appointed; a voter could be forgiven for thinking that we’re still in the unfortunate days of cash-for-honours, if only because, with a few high-profile exceptions, there is still very little clarity on the reasons behind most elevations to the Lords. With Lords reform appearing to have gone down with the Nick Clegg ship, at least for the time being, we can and must step into the breach, calling for increased transparency in Lords appointments. As well as introducing a democratic, transparent process in choosing the finalists.
We are also in particular need of clarity and transparency regarding the people who attempt to influence our government. We must revitalise the issue of a statutory register of lobbyists and their official activities; a potential model is that of the United States, where the Lobbing and Disclosure Act of 1995 and Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 require that professional lobbyists report their activities quarterly and any financial donations to political entities twice-yearly. Anyone who spends less than 20 per cent of their time lobbying is exempt from these requirements, easing the burden on grassroots advocates or citizens who simply wish to educate their representatives on an important issue.
While the model is not perfect, it has gone a long way toward cleaning up a system that had been opaque, chaotic, and occasionally outright anti-democratic, and we would do well to take a few key lessons from it.
There could also be greater transparency regarding many of the internal procedures of political parties. A standardised process for the selection of candidates for mayorships, parliament, and other offices must be made public. Critically, parties must be willing to field and answer questions about this – simply putting some text on a web page and referring inquiries back to it (as has, sadly, been common practice in the past) is not sufficient. Further, in an echo of the need to register the activities of lobbyists, all parties must be clearer and more open about who contributes to and influences their policy platform.
Parties are still effectively telling the public ‘we do not trust you with information about how we decide on candidates, staffing, and policy, or who we talk to in order to make decisions’. Then, in the next breath, we ask that same public to trust us with their vote, and express surprise when they seem reluctant to give it. A new process would provide credibility, when parties make the same demands of the media, banks and government.