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UK democracy must do better than this: reflections on the General Election 2017

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  • Picture of Reema Patel
    Research Director and Head of Deliberative Engagement, Ipsos
  • Economic democracy
  • Institutional reform

Reema Patel reflects on the result of the UK General Election 2017 which has resulted in a hung Parliament. Contempt for the electorate, unclear political and economic language and political game playing revealed a UK democracy at its worst. We can, and must do better than this. The starting point is to clean up our act.

As I write this piece, I am listening to Theresa May announce the formation of a new government in coalition with the DUP. Proponents of a deliberative, accountable and more responsive democracy can take heart from the result of a hung government – a result which might well just in retrospect satisfy nobody but certainly has the ability to open up a conversation about what kind of democracy we aspire to in Britain. This result vindicates a longstanding message from the RSA : we need to do better, and much more, if we are going to rebuild trust and create a more meaningful conversation about the future of the UK going forward from the General Election.

What is most interesting about this result, in many ways, is what it tells us about the state of our democracy today. There are three democratic deficits, exposed by the General Election which we have observed:

1)   Contempt for the electorate  

The ultimate sin of any performer is contempt for the audience.

 – Lester Bangs, American rock music critic 

The glaring absence of Theresa May from the BBC TV Debate and her subsequent refusal to participate in a conversation about the impacts of the election on BBC Women’s Hour did little to address growing levels of distrust in politicians. This led  to what will no doubt be characterised as a defining televised moment as Amber Rudd, May’s substitute, was laughed at in contempt as she asked the public to judge us on our record’.

A growing sense by voters across the country that their interests, views and perspectives were being treated with contempt no doubt contributed to the Conservative Party relinquishing a 24 point lead in the polls through to losing its own majority. 

2) Unclear political language

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms.

- George Orwell, in Politics and the English Language

This General Election has been a textbook example of the way in which political and economic language can lack clarity, masking clear and important choices we make as a society. Here are just two very well known examples of the use of unclear or misleading political language:

'There is no magic money tree'

Terms such as 'the magic money tree', colourful as they may be, are better off on a cocktail menu than as part of political debate. This use of language has sought to uncritically play into the assumption that national economies work in the same way household budgets do.

Political and economic language, used in this way, has been used to close down a debate that we really need to have and consistently misinforms the public on the plurality of views about how economics works. Work that we’re doing here at the RSA, through our Citizens’ Economic Council, is exploring what happens when we open this debate up with a group of demographically diverse citizens, informing them about issues such as how money is created, how it is used and how it flows through the economy. We believe that models such as citizens’ councils, juries and assemblies can help strengthen both democracy legitimacy, as well as citizens’ knowledge, agency, and ability to challenge the frame of the debate.

‘Brexit means Brexit’

Let me hone in on yet another slogan –which also serves to illustrate the scale of the problem; ‘Brexit means Brexit’. What does Brexit actually mean? What legitimacy is given to any UK negotiator on Brexit –and to what purpose? Our elected representatives need to engage directly with diverse viewpoints on issues such as Brexit – opening up a dialogue about what Brexit really does and should mean, what gives Brexit democratic legitimacy, and why people voted the way they voted.

The strong influence of how people voted  in the European referendum on the outcome of the 2017 General Election will undoubtedly give all politicians much pause for reflection - the appalling quality of debate that has played out about Brexit in the run up to the General Election is simply unacceptable if voters are to feel their views and voices have at least been listened to in a meaningful way. Political parties have, across the board, been unclear about the terms under which they think Brexit should happen, and unable to articulate what kind of Brexit they would negotiate for in power. The result we have seen play out in constituencies across the UK has arguably been a vindication of that matter.

3)   Political game-playing and showmanship over securing the long term interests of the country  

‘You’re not playing politics with this, Prime Minister?’ 

 – Andrew Neil questioning Theresa May on her social care policy 

The question of how we pay for social care (probably very far away from any political commentator’s mind in the immediate moment… ) is unlikely to go away anytime soon. This has been a longstanding ticking time bomb in the wake of increasingly greater pressure on care and health services in later life – neglected by successive governments, the question is now placing greater and greater pressure on subsequent governments. Any attempt to put forward a costed viewpoint on how social care should be paid for has been shut down by political debate – to illustrate this point, May’s own U-turn on social care has not been the only one in recent years – Labour had proposed a broadly similar set of proposals in 2010, dubbed ‘the death tax’, a 15% levy on people’s estates to pay for social care.

The spectacle of watching politicians shift their policies according to the colour of their tribe, rather than on the basis of their political convictions is never a particularly pleasant one – but more importantly, and worryingly, the issue of how we solve one of our biggest economic problems: paying for social care and balancing the trade-offs and impacts (for instance, between young and old) never once got a look in as a result of this General Election. Social care is just one of the important policy issues on which we must have a bigger, better and more collaborative conversation about– preferably earlier on and in a more open way than has been the case in the run up to this General Election. Here at the RSA we are engaging with the question of how we can create a democracy that is focused on the longer-term interests of our society – a question we are shortly to be crowdsourcing policy ideas on as part of the RSA Citizens’ Economic Council. This crowdsourcing challenge will launch on Monday.

Final reflections

Our democracy has been weighed, has been measured – and has absolutely been found wanting in the aftermath of this General Election in several important respects. But today’s result gives hope to those democrats who want to seek accountability strengthened, the three deficits outlined above addressed, and a better quality of dialogue and debate about Britain’s future. We need to look again at what meaningful democratic reform looks like in the light of such electoral uncertainty for Britain – to do this we are working with think tanks in this space - the Electoral Reform Society, Involve and APPG Devolution, Decentralisation and Democratic Reform to open up the conversation on these issues in Parliament (‘Power and People in the UK constitution’) towards the end of this month.

Democratic innovations emerging across the world such as the Citizens’ Economic Council might just be one way forward in addressing the scale of the problem – these are processes seeking to create richer, deeper and more diverse conversations between citizens, experts, civil society organisations and politicians - than the type that play out between politicians alone. They have the potential to rebuild trust in, respect of and legitimacy for the democratic and political process. Give them the chance to do so.

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  • I think that real solutions abound. Look at Positive Money. They have calculated the impact of banks creating money in the form of debt and suggested and alternative. They published a white paper about that in 2014 and the subject was debated in parliament. Tim Jackson has written 'Prosperity Without Growth' which also suggests someways forward.

    I like the idea of accountability and proper principled, transparent decisions, backed up by argument; which I would love to see.

  • Contempt for the audience is the key here. How do we build a mutual trust between politicians and the public. We need a social contract that works and that comes from trust. We need to trust that our politicians really do behave according principles that they believe are beneficial to the country and that they can back up their principles with research. 

    Let's hold them to account as best we can, and rally for electoral reform.

    • The airwaves are bloated with criticism, yet sparse on real solutions.  Rally for electoral reform by all means, but what?  Suggest we start with universally transparent decisions (public accountability) which are all-inclusive using a process which is freely available and always identifies the best choice (unity and commitment).  That's the basis of government of the people, by the people, for the people - electoral reform incarnate.  And, yes, a solution now exists but fear of moderation prevents it being mentioned here.

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