Standards in public life are perceived to be at an all-time low. This is a problem. It is a problem because it means that people don’t trust politicians and all those associated with politics (and that includes many public servants). But of course many people in public life are trustworthy, have high standards, and are doing their jobs for the right reasons: to make a difference, to make things better for people and to make the world a better place.
In the years while I worked in public service myself, and in the years when I was doing advocacy with elected officials (and their civil servants), I had ample opportunity to encounter many people who demonstrated what is best in public service.
But of course there are the ‘rogue’ elements. And they give everyone a bad name. And we have seen them hogging the limelight for all the wrong reasons. And somehow, they seem to be the ones that get into power.
The Referendum Campaign
We have seen in this most recent campaign that both main campaigns told lies on an industrial scale. Whatever you think about the result, what must be clear to everyone is this: many people made their decision without having factual information that was relevant to the issue at hand. That is a major problem because it leaves open questions about whether the referendum decision should even be valid.
Politically, I would not want to question the validity of the result despite the fact that I am stunned – not to say grief-stricken – by the result. But I am sure that there are many who voted for Leave who already regret this and who realise that they were sold a pup by the chief Brexiteers.
And so the trust in politicians and the media sinks some more. That is the real problem.
Some activists have set up petitions to highlight the problems we have with the lack of truth and accountability in public affairs. The first of these was actually started well before the referendum and was on the government website (where people can set up petitions which have to be debated if they achieve 100 000 signatures or more.
This is that first one. It closed on 26 July 2016 and the government petition website suggest that this was the end of the 6 months period during which it was open. It didn’t reach it’s 100 000 signatures, but the government did make a response.
The second of these petitions was set up on Change.org and is still running. It has a target of 25 000 of which it has reached 18 300 approximately at the time of writing this post.
The nub of this petition is this:
We urge the Government to create an independent body like the ASA, with the remit and power to verify claims made in political campaign material and compel bodies to retract and correct statements which are demonstrably misleading.
This petition is addressed to David Cameron but of course he – along with many of the other architects of this dreadful Referendum and its outcome – has departed the scene.
The Government Response
The government has responded to the first of the two petitions; it hasn’t responded to the second one and is not likely to do so.
But the response to the first one is extra ordinary in my view. Here is the response I have downloaded from the government website:
That’s it. A simple re-statement of some principles which are fine as far as they go. But the truth is, they are not being observed by many public figures and the reason the petition is there at all is that they are not working, they are not being enforced, people who breach them don’t face any serious consequences and so on.
In other words, the government is basically saying: not interested in the fact that 78 000 plus people are deeply frustrated (and of course the signatories aren’t all the people who think this). We are just going to carry on as if nothing at all needs to change.
It is, then, interesting to see that in a report on 2010, a report published by the Committee on Standards in Public Life found that the perception of perception of the conduct of MPs was pretty shocking (note: the perception – this means that this reflects what people think about the conduct of MPs and does not say anything about their actual conduct).
Where does that leave us
Those of us who are trying to move things towards a different kind of politics aren’t getting anywhere right now.
The evidence that change is necessary is clearly there to see. But a government elected by less than 40% of those who bothered to go and vote with a majority of 12 and a Prime Minister elected by Tory MPs only is free to ignore us.
My thought on this: what are our MPs thinking about this? You don’t know what yours is thinking – well, there’s only one thing for it: go and ask.
We can’t really allow the government to ignore this important issue.
And as for the petition on the Change.org site – maybe the person who started it could come up with a strategy as to how to
(a) get a more significant number of signatures and
(b) move from petition to a definite proposal that is to be presented to government in a way they can’t ignore.
That may well require support from other politicians; but it is also something that might be part of a platform for any progressive alliance that may (hopefully) evolve before the next General Election.
What is absolutely essential is this: the electorate has to have a viable alternative to more of the same tired, dangerous, dishonest processes loosely described as democracy. The level of distrust is a verdict on the shambles we have.