Three baby steps to direct democracy

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In his blog last week, Adam Lent talked about a crisis of representative democracy, referencing a YouGov survey in which 72% agreed with the statement: ‘politics is dominated by self-seeking politicians protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in our society’. He eloquently made the case for political parties to  “shift away from the current highly representative approach to democracy based on strong party discipline, to one with a larger element of direct democracy”.

While I agree with the sentiment – indeed it is my team’s raison d'être to support a “shift in power to people and communities so that they can better meet their economic and social needs and aspirations” – I think there are a number of steps between where we are now and “direct democracy”. So rather than take on the problem as a whole, perhaps we should look at it in smaller chunks - baby steps, like the following:


1. Put down the PR tools

Think back to last month’s party conferences: the speakers were all careful to show their empathy for the common man, liberally referencing real people and situations, but by trying to curb support for Ukip with carefully crafted speeches about people's lives, it reinforced the disconnect between their lives and those of their subjects.

When words change but deeds don't, it reeks of “spin” – which is the antithesis of direct democracy. If you want to change the system, the first step is to look at the tools you use to communicate. In a Twitter transparent world, politicians still dive into the old school PR man’s bag o’ tricks with alarming regularity, using scripts, key messages, "defence against enquiry”, and the handy pneumonic ABC (Acknowledge, Bridge, Communicate) as a guide to get through a tough interview. This is fundamentally unsustainable if we really want to transfer power. What Nigel Farage has done with his “man of the people” schtick – like it or not – is to give a less stage managed alternative to the pre-prepared “self-seeking politicians.” While I don’t see the attraction myself, I can understand why he is perceived by some as a “breath of fresh air”. It would be an old-style politics reaction to the threat of Farage to rewrite the party line to sound more plain-talking. Crafted words aren’t the answer – so baby step 1 is to put down the PR tools and see what happens.


2. Acknowledge that change is painful

In 1993, Peter Drucker wrote: “Every few hundred years in Western history there occurs a sharp transformation. Within a few short decades, society – its world view, its basic values, its social and political structures, its arts, its key institutions – rearranges itself. And the people born then cannot even imagine a world in which their grandparents lived and into which their own parents were born. We are currently living through such a transformation." 

Every few hundred years in Western history there occurs a sharp transformation. Within a few short decades, society – its world view, its basic values, its social and political structures, its arts, its key institutions – rearranges itself. And the people born then cannot even imagine a world in which their grandparents lived and into which their own parents were born. We are currently living through such a transformation.

And fast forward two decades and my granny doesn't recognise the world I now inhabit.  During the last 20 years, there have been a few seismic shifts:

  • Two billion more people on the planet;
  • The economic axis of the earth has moved eastwards;
  • Technology has blown apart the way we operate as a society, and
  • Britain’s growth is now driven by financial services, global markets and Google hangouts, etc, etc.
  • And thousands – if not millions – of people feel left behind and suffering a crisis of identity brought about by modern Britain. And yet, politicians find it very hard to acknowledge that the pursuit of modernity might not be everyone's cup of tea. Whereas, clever ol’ Ukip have aimed squarely at the "left behind" voters by playing on the very human fear of change (and exacerbating it with talk of the stranger danger of foreigners). By giving a voice to this pain, Ukip has afforded the left behinders much needed acknowledgement (even if it is then co-opted into anti-EU arguments that aren't necessarily the only source of the anguish). Until the political classes start to acknowledge that the pain of change needs to be aired first as part of a co-production process to get us to "direct democracy", the process will stall at the early stages and Ukip will keep on creaming off all those voters who are finding the pace of change distressing and disempowering.

    Instead of doing this though, political classes continue in the defensive mode, for example, last week, the Economist made the following statement: “Britain's EU membership and high level of immigration bring it huge benefits in terms of economic growth, cultural vibrancy and clout. Abandoning either would, in this paper's view, weaken the country in a multitude of ways” .  A cursory look down the (slightly troll-y) comments showed massive disdain. As one online commenter said in response: “people DON'T CARE about the economic benefits of immigration. Like it or not, they feel as if their culture is under attack, their identity frowned upon, their traditions devalued and their country changing in ways they do not appreciate. Economic arguments, figures and theories about the wonders of diversity count for little. Until there is wider appreciation of this viewpoint, controversy over immigration will continue, and people like Nigel Farage will ride on the wave of resentment. Over to you, "chattering classes".


    3. Don't be drawn into the politics of “no”

    When old style politicians sense public dissatisfaction, they can go ever more into lock down mode. Consider last week's threat of a backbench revolution when Graham Brady, the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee has urged the Prime Minister to think again about the European Arrest Warrant. He told BBC Radio Four: "I feel very strongly we ought to be bringing powers back to the United Kingdom, back to British democratic control. We shouldn't be ceding powers to the European institutions. I think it sends a message which is really very unhelpful.”

    Hmmm 'sending unhelpful messages" huh? Sounds rather like we are back in the old defensive world again. In my rather broad-based opinion, the Arrest Warrant looked likes it might be an efficient thing to sign - potentially saving time and money and fostering collaboration across borders. Well, not in the hyperbolic political world of the backbenchers it's not - anything supporting Europe is a no go zone. This is the politics of no...

    Direct democracy cannot be based on this kind of knee-jerk reaction because they will stop us from dealing with the big challenges that we face in the future - energy, housing, climate, healthcare, etc.


    It is the big conversations that might just get us to direct democracy

    The only route that I can see to a more representative democracy is through opening up a much bigger conversation with the public about our collective future. This conversation needs to be less tightly managed, less populist, more honest about the hard stuff, and more empathetic with how difficult change really is. And before you call  me Pollyanna and tell me that this type of honest communication could never survive in our political landscape, I would point to places where it has already started - just look at the NHS Citizen project as an example of a way of opening up the dialogue.

    We won't solve the crisis of representation with big shouty polemics, it will be through lots and lots of conversations that might just seed the beginning of a brave new  world of direct democracy.


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    • You may be interested in a YouGov Poll I commissioned a little while ago -  on a hybrid form of Direct and Representative Democracy.

    • I agree that spin has diminished the integrity of British politics. I am not sure, though, that direct democracy (in the form of citizen juries or referendums) is the best answer. On my own blog I have posted an item at which asks parties to be clearer about their values and less keen on making promises that they cannot keep when they enter coalitions; I followed this up with letters to a key thinker in each of the three main political parties. I think that being honest with the electorate will help people to make the right choices when they vote. Communication with those they elect can then be either through consultation or by joining pressure groups.