Governing (for) the people

My second op-ed for the Dhaka Tribune, published a few weeks ago on the website at http://www.dhakatribune.com/op-ed/2015/jan/25/governing-people, written as an examination of election promises. Another article on immigration has since been printed, but I will post that after it has remained on the newspaper website for a few days.

January 20 in 1265 saw Britain introduce what was then a revolutionary step forward in world politics. For the first time in its history, a parliament was being held which was not called forward by the reigning monarch but was elected by the people to represent them at the highest level of government.

Known as the January Parliament, it set up the system that would eventually evolve into the House of Commons which, in turn, would shape parliamentary politics across the world via the British Empire and the Commonwealth.

Despite being an untested concept, early parliaments were surprisingly efficient in handling the affairs of the common man. Perhaps it was a result of the lack of other avenues available, but these sessions became a useful way for the average citizen to voice their grievances and even lead to practical solutions. How sad then that, 750 years on, this institution has lost touch with its roots, preferring to pay lip service to serious issues only during election years.

Five months from this momentous anniversary, members of the 66th modern UK Parliament will be voted into power in what is predicted to be a close race to the finish. In these uncertain times, parties across the board are scrambling to make promises that they are mostly unlikely to keep.

The Conservatives, the larger party of the current Coalition Government, have been working hard to woo voters on the right after the UK Independence Party stole their credentials with outrageous claims regarding immigration and race.

Hoping to win back some of that thunder, the Conservative platform has focused on maintaining the strength of the Armed Forces, tightening immigration and student visa legislation, a referendum on EU membership, and a host of surveillance laws to promote security at the expense of privacy and personal freedoms.

Their partners-in-crime, the Liberal Democrats, have been trying to distance themselves from the last five years, with a focus on mental health, child illiteracy and education – the latter being the golden bullet that got them the majority of the votes in 2010 and subsequently caused their downfall when they failed to deliver.

Labour, the opposition now after 13 years in power, has been attacking the Conservatives’ track record and promising to look at better healthcare for children, improvements in the National Health Service, a continuation of existing benefits schemes, and a commitment to stay in the EU.

All three major parties are also looking at the economy and whether it has made a full recovery since the recession earlier in the decade. Meanwhile, the smaller parties have been grabbing at growing concerns like Scottish devolution and environmentalism to try and get enough seats to gain more influence than they currently wield.

The problem with these seemingly well-planned campaign pitches is not that they are out of touch with the actual situation of the country but that these issues seem to be ignored unless it benefits the parties themselves.

Neglect and abuse in the mental health profession have been steadily highlighted for the past few years, including worrying reports that some facilities have been using physical violence and untrained workers to handle their patients. So too has the falling standard of the National Health Service and the challenges it faces with employing enough people to provide essential treatment.

Despite these blatant shortcomings – only two examples out of dozens more – politicians have done very little to actually tackle them when in power. Less than a tenth of the 650-strong House of Commons showed up to confer on schooling for Syrian refugees or knife crime prevention, but it was a full house when debating MP bonuses and corporate taxation.

Talking eloquently about the everyday problems of their constituents is all well and good, but it seems that only a handful of MP’s actually care about solving them.

Perhaps the system is to blame. UK electoral laws limit the range of funding available to the parties as well as preventing them from campaigning to the over-zealous degree seen in the USA or South Asia. As a result of these restrictions, it makes political sense to leave some issues unsolved in order to convince voters to return a group to power, while also focusing on the legislation that affects the most influential donors.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what is wrong with how things work. If the point of an election campaign is for a party to hold on to power, whatever the cost, then they serve no real purpose for the electorate.

Government should be to benefit the people, for every day of its five-year tenure, not just highlighting difficulties when it makes for good political capital. Perhaps the lessons of the January Parliament need to be relearned.