What does empowerment mean in a representative democracy?

That sounds like a massive question, doesn’t it?  Don’t read on if you expect me to answer it in this blog post – I’m merely aiming to think through the MPs’ expenses debacle and what questions recent events might raise for the Citizenship Foundation.

Over the past couple of days I’ve had conversations with Andy (Director of Participation and Social Action at the Foundation) and Tony (our Chief Exec) about whether or not the Foundation has something to say on the expenses scandal.  Over various discussions we all agreed that, as an organisation, we believe that that this is a time for everyone to take ownership of our political system and that we hope teachers across the country are using the debate as an opportunity to tackle some difficult questions around trust and democratic representation with their students.  Indeed, we’ve got lots to say on the subject, but I took the view that there probably wasn’t much point entering into the media scrum at the moment with a message that is positive and/or constructive.  Defeatist as this might sound, I think it’s fair to say that a measured response would be considered positively boring, what with all the back-biting and political manoeuvring taking place on our TV screens and in our papers.

So we’re not going to stand up and shout about what’s going on.  But that hasn’t stopped me – and I’m sure other colleagues – from thinking about the long-term impacts the scandal is going to have on public trust in politicians and our political institutions.  I think this is a systemic problem, one that has arisen because Parliament has been allowed to create the very system that is supposed to regulate their behaviour.  This is an obviously skewed arrangement; who knows how creative we all could be if we were allowed to write the tax policy, for instance, that applied to our own earnings?  From the fear of anarchy implicit in such a proposition, it follows that it is right for public decisions regarding issues of self-interest to be handed up to our political representatives; this is a basic principle of our democratic arrangements.  What puzzles me is that we don’t extend this logic to our representatives themselves.

As it stands now, an independent inquiry will look at the expenses system and make recommendations, which the Government and Parliament will either accept or reject.  We, the public, are supposed to be cheered by the independence of the review.  But I can’t be with final decision-making power still resting in the hands of the political establishment, rather than with – at least at some level – citizens.

And this is when I get to empowerment.  What has struck me about this whole mess is how confined public anger towards and interest in MPs’ apparent abuse of the system is.  Several representative groups have been polled to demonstrate the outrage.  Media pundits talk at length about the electoral impacts, both at the European elections in June and the General Election in, presumably, 2010.  But when it comes to the nitty-gritty – how to sort this out – the problems are for MPs themselves and not for us, as citizens, to think through.

All too often it seems to me that the ideal empowered citizen, from the point of view of the political establishment, operates on his or her own street, getting the council to fill a pot hole, or organising activities for local young people.  I would never suggest that these activities aren’t important, but I wonder if they are all that we should aspire to.

Can we be empowered citizens if we are only able to call our representatives to account at elections?  Can we be empowered citizens if our political institutions judge us too busy/uninterested/not clever enough to think through the checks and balances that should exist in Parliament?  Is there really a problem with public trust in politicians and institutions – or is the real issue that we, as citizens, are not allowed the national, political space to trust ourselves?

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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