Breaking up the political elite

It is well known that liberal democracies develop a stable constellation of parties, and a cross-party political elite. In some countries the elite is known as the ‘political class’ – a useful metaphor, even if it is not a ‘class’ in the sociological sense. In western Europe the political class is becoming more isolated from the electorate, as voters increasingly distrust politicians and their governments. These trends (elite isolation and public distrust) can reinforce each other, and probably do.

The proposals below are aimed directly at the political elite itself, on the assumption that it cannot be reformed. They do not guarantee more trust in politicians, but they would result in renewal of the group. Some were submitted to Constitution UK, an LSE project to ‘crowd-source’ a constitution for the United Kingdom, but they could be applied in any other European parliamentary democracy.

One way to prevent stagnation in a closed elite, is to force a high turnover of its members. For politicians that can be achieved by limiting terms of office. Consecutive terms in government, or consecutive terms as an elected representative, should be banned.

There should be an additional lifetime limit of 10 years as an elected representative, and with no more than 5 years in any 10-year period. In practice that amounts to a compulsory 5-year break between full terms as elected representative, and no more than two full terms. This would end lifetime political careers, and force parties to recruit new candidates for office.

Deterrence

No-one should be eligible to stand for election, unless they had done 2000 hours of manual work in the preceding 5 years. True idealists will not be deterred by this, and doing manual work would force politicians into contact with low-income workers, who they never normally meet.

Politicians should be required to surrender their wealth. That would take the form of a 100% wealth tax, with a small personal savings exception – about 1000 times the hourly minimum wage. The tax would only take effect when elected representatives take their seat: candidates who were unexpectedly elected could change their mind. Like all other taxes, evasion would be a criminal offence. Elected representatives would also lose their seat, if they evaded this particular tax.

This proposal would strongly deter rich people from going into politics to multiply their wealth. It would also deter people with a relatively high income and an established career: in most cases such people would own a house, and on election they would lose it. On the other hand it would not deter the poor from entering politics: they have nothing to lose.

Elected representatives should also be compelled to live in social housing. If they had lost their house they would need it anyway, but the main reason is to enforce a low-income lifestyle. Politicians could no longer live in expensive country houses, for instance. Living in social housing would also encourage, although not guarantee, contact with low-income groups.

Politicians should be banned from using alcohol and drugs. This measure is primarily intended to disrupt the crony culture among professional politicians. It would take the form of a ban on any alcohol use during their term of office, with random alcohol tests several times a week. Most drugs are banned anyway, but elected representatives should be subject to regular tests.

Roughly the same standards and procedures would apply, as for doping in sport. If any elected representatives tested positive, and that was confirmed by a subsequent test, they would automatically lose their seat. Elected representatives would also be banned from entering any place where alcohol was sold or served, except for official visits during normal office hours (i.e., not in the evening).

Obviously, these are not the only measures to deter membership of the political class. Many people could think of similar proposals. The important thing is to rethink attitudes to the political class. Politicians should be treated as a harmful class of people, and membership of that class should be restricted and deterred. If possible, such people should be kept out of the political system.

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