On the eve of All Saints Day, October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted the 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg.
This was a pivotal moment which many historians point to as representing a significant step-change in attitudes towards the Catholic Church. The 95 theses set out why the Catholic Church had got it wrong, and needed to change.
The Church had become vast, wealthy beyond belief, and made up of an elite which was incredibly distant from the normal people who made up the congregation. It was 'the establishment', and did not seek to represent the people to god, to seek their 'forgiveness' for sins, to atone for their mistakes and to channel their prayers to the almighty... what it really stood for, in the eyes of the people, was itself. It stood for ensuring its own continuation, for more lining of the coffers, for guaranteeing the clergymen's lifestyles - supported by the people's money.
In order for such an organisation to preserve itself in this way, it needed to be able to resist forces of change.
Change can be forced by the people much more easily when they understand the system which rules over them and can thereby scrutinize and examine. Keeping Latin, then, was one way of preventing understanding and ensuring the elitist institution could continue - unless you were well educated and wealthy, how could you learn Latin or enter the clergy?
These and more were the arguments put forward that resulted in the Protestant change.
The new establishment
It goes without saying that the similarities between the Catholic Church in 1517 bears clear similarities to any long-running state establishment/system.
In the past week we have seen some insightful comment pieces by Iain Dale, the prominent Conservative blogger, and Prem Goyal OBE, a contributor to Progress Online, on the UK political culture.
Iain has 'fallen out of love with politics'. He talks about how changed the people around him who have become MPs are. Amusingly, Iain says how they 'don't respond to texts anymore' (heavens above!). He talked about how he thought he might now be seeing politicians in the way the rest of the public do. Yes Iain - very likely you are.
Prem's article tackles the challenges of reforming the Labour Party, about how inaccessible it's internal procedures have become, and how it was 'ironic' that 'politics in the UK is such an insular pursuit', given it is all about the people.
It is interesting to see these two activists pose the same questions and points from across the political divide, anyone really interested in politics knows they speak of a serious issue at the heart of British political democracy.
Voter turnout has been declining significantly since the 50s and 60s. Particularly damning is the behaviour of young voters, the following from Mark Wadsworth is insightful;
"The UK population pyramid (from here) there are 19.4 million people aged 18 to 40, of whom about half (9.7 million) didn't vote in the 2010 General Election, in other words, there were nearly as many 18 to 40 year old non-voters as there were Conservative voters ."
So we know many many people no longer vote. Probably you, like me, also know people with abundant conspiracy theories about the activities of the Government, who don't vote because they think the Government is a law unto itself which is remote from the people, and is upto all sorts of bizarre and machiavellian activities, such as hiding the discovery of alien life. Trust too then, is at a low ebb.
The two - low turnout and low trust - are chicken and egg problems... if you think about it.
Those that do vote have - and I include myself in this - little confidence that things will improve, from one government to the next. Viewing the 2008 Obama election from afar, I, and I know there are many like me, were filled with enormous hope and optimism (sadly much of which was idealistic and misplaced), a kind of hope and optimism which seems to be missing from UK political events.... at least since 1997, which was more a sense of relief than anything else, in hindsight.
Dale believes the above problems are because the press paint politicians badly. I don't buy into this. I know many politicians, and the reason they get painted badly is.... believe it or not... because they behave badly. I don't mean they brake more rules than most. I mean because they are craven and evidently self-serving - the antithesis of what is needed in the job. They have lost sight of the main reason they are there, to represent the people.
Goyal feels that changing the machinery of the Labour organisational system will help Labour engage. He is partly right, but when talking about 'transparency' he embraces a small solution which cannot possibly hope to resolve the wider challenge.
The future - a recipe for reform
In many ways, the current system, and the people who make it up, mirror the problems of the Catholic Church when faced with the reformation.
Politicians use arcane language - the modern equivalent of Latin - and devise and utilise systems which are utterly inaccessible and nonsensical to the public.
Debt and deficit are habeas corpus and non sequiter to most people; they don't know what either mean and certainly most couldn't accurately describe the difference. Try asking anyone what quantitative easing is; some will tell you 'printing money' - which is the result of the political system being unable to explain the process adequately.
Labour, sadly, is a huge part of the problem. We cannot hope for the Tories to change - Conservatives are by nature an elitist establishment organisation; this will never alter.
Labour though, MUST reconnect with the people it claims to represent, because frankly, what is the point in its existence otherwise?
Labour once stood for something which was designed to upset the establishment. It has now been subsumed - like the Borg subsumes its enemies in Star Trek. The culture of hierarchy has got hold of Labour. Power has corrupted absolutely, as is its want.
Labour is not elite insofar as it requires money to become a major player. It is elite in that the members are political nerds from an exceedingly young age.... turning to political activism at the age of 16-20, at a point where they simply haven’t experienced enough of the real world, of the trials and tribulations of life in order to be able to represent the wider population – most of whom HAVE experienced these things. Becoming politically active at this age makes them set apart from the rest, and makes their world of political debate segregated. They are a profession; like lawyers, surgeons, architects, chemists.... whose work is incomprehensible to all but a few. This cannot be in the world of politics, where the job isn't to simply lead but is to represent.
Apart from the nerdist frenzy at the heart of Labour, feet dragging on the really meaty things people know would change the establishment has alienated people. Lords reform, electoral reform, political appointments, family members of staff, all should be demanded by Labour to demonstrate their anti-establishment credentials.
Transparency, yes this is important Prem goyal – but not the ultimate method of ensuring increased engagement. Lobbyists should be on a statutory register sure. Recall that any amount of transparency at the time of the Reformation would not have ensured accessibility of the clergy, as was achived under. What is needed is that same ‘accessibility’ revolution.
A hugely saddening fact is that the very people who might be able to reform the political system are those most likely to avoid interacting with it. Those politicians who are currently part of the Party, who wish to see change, must seek to change their party's recruiting and leadership approaches... to ensure that they are sending a signal that says; 'don't just vote for us; join us'.
But whilst change within is necessary, there must also be change without; many people look at the system with dismay, and turn their backs on it. This makes me wonder, what do they hope to achieve?
Given we're faced with a system on the scale of the Catholicism in the 15th and 16th centuries, we are then faced with an equally substantial response, which reflects the enormity of the reformation's effort.
So, taking the lessons from the above into account, what might a modern 95 theses for Labour politics look like? I can't come up with 95, but here's three to get us started...
Actively seeking normal people to become part of the Party and stand for election, not people with long part backgrounds or hardcore political nerds.
- Being honest – admitting mistakes and fallibility (this is the Boris bulletproof technique; people wonder why he is so successful. I think it's because he simply comes across as a lot more honest and straightforward. Even when risking opinions that seem unpopular he delivers his opinion without ducking and dodging in the way the electorate hates. People like this because it demonstrates their top requirement of politicians; sincerity. Miliband could take this very strongly with the unions – he keeps allowing the right wing papers to humiliate the Party over it’s donations of unions and their members. This should be laughed off as ludicrous every time it is mentioned. The Labour Party was BORNE out of the union movement, unions are made up of millions of the people of Britain and the idea that their money is somehow ‘dirty’ is disgraceful and deserves shouting down not meekly cowering about. When this is mentioned people should say “Union money is money of the working people that made this Party revolutionise the way decent working people were treated in this country, and we’re proud that our money comes from a source as good as that).
- Embracing constitutional reform; not half heartedly, but properly... no more u-turning once in Government, like we've seen on Lords reform and better voting systems.
- Language is a key factor. Keep it simple... Plain English needs to be taken to the next level in political literature and in political announcements. Don't allow political terminology to creep into decision-making meetings.
- Embracing the transparency agenda - not ducking it because sometimes it illuminates unhealthy use of public funds.
So there you have it. Not quite a modern Lutheran rival, but a fairly reasonable set of proposals that would imbue people with more confidence in the Labour political system. And you know what - they wouldn't cost the world either.
What do you think? Any ideas of your own? How do we change Labour, or change politics, in a way which works for modern society?