Those of you who have read my speech or essay on pro-social behaviour (thanks Mum) may recall that one of my arguments concerned the inadequacy of 'majoritarian' democracy to today's social and political challenges. By 'majoritarian' I mean the view that the rule of law, regular elections and competition between parties are a sufficient basis for a successful democracy.
This can be contrasted with arguments for a more participative system in which citizens have a direct role in decision making and/or a pluralist system in which power is more widely diffused, for example through extensive decentralisation to cities, towns and neighbourhoods.
I have two recent reminders of this debate. The first comes in a refreshingly frank letter from one of our MP Fellows (a Conservative in case you're interested). He describes how the task of being a democratic representative is being made ever more difficult by the decline of community organisations. Even where such organisations exist, he adds, they tend to be strongest among those who are already adept at having their opinions heard, particularly the well-off retired.
Very different factors lie behind the problem of understanding what communities want and engaging people in informed debate. The diversity of society (in relation to income, identity, attitude and lifestyles) makes representation more complex while the intensity of work and the opportunities of consumerism mean fewer people are inclined to get involved in community organisations.
The other prompt is my membership of the Commission on Councillors set up by Communities Secretary of State Ruth Kelly. The Commission is charged with exploring why more people (and particularly young people) don't want to stand to be councillors, and proposing ways to address this deficit. There are some obvious reasons including the level of allowances, problems with time off from work and the low prestige of councillors in the wider community. Indeed only 4 per cent of the population have ever even considered standing.
The Commission was launched last week and our focus now is on listening and learning, but if I do bring a predisposition to our deliberations it is to think that we should address the issue of councillor recruitment in the context of the wider state of representative democracy. As long as the attitudes of citizens to politicians are framed as they are now it is difficult to see why anyone would want the hassle. Add to that the fact that putative councillors have to work their way through the hollow bureaucracy of local political parties and maybe we should be surprised the 4 per cent isn't lower.
Fiercely protecting its independence, the RSA can sometimes give the impression it is above politics. But as part of our work on 'pro-social' behaviour we need to think about why politics isn't working. Not in order to add to the lazy criticism of politicians but so we can develop practical ways to help reconnect the political process to today's communities. I'm keen for example that we invite local councillors to Coffeehouse Challenge events - on the strict proviso that their status in the discussion is no different from any other participant.
The competitive nature of politics and an understandable fear of how the media might exploit candour can make politicians shy of describing just how hard it is to be an effective representative. Between the superficial apathy of voters and the disenchantment of politicians there is an important space for the RSA to provoke debate and innovation. And in case this doesn't feel like a priority, look at the research from Cambridge University published yesterday. In assessing levels of contentment across the citizens of Europe the research suggested that the best explanation for the surprisingly low levels of contentment in the UK (given our affluence and stability) lay in our lack of confidence and trust in political institutions.
As we begin to imagine the post-pandemic world, we need to challenge our use of old metaphors to allow for new narratives and better futures to emerge.
With the post-Christmas resolutions looming, when we try to address the worst of our seasonal over-indulgences, the question remains: how can we give up bad habits for good?