Democractic reform: we still aren't having the right discussion


David Cameron’s lengthy Guardian essay about democratic reform is welcome, even if there isn’t much in it that is both new and a concrete commitment. As a long standing supporter of electoral reform, I also supported Alan Johnson’s call this weekend for a referendum on the day of the next General Election - indeed, I advocated exactly this policy in my blog a few days days earlier.

While it is important to debate the rules and procedures of politics I continue to believe that the bigger issue is the content of democratic discourse. My first RSA annual lecture, back in 2007, was about 'pro-social strategy'. This is what I said:

The way we do politics not only reflects but reinforces a loss of confidence among citizens and communities about solving problems ourselves. The most disabling aspect of political discourse is the paradox (exploited by the news media) that Government is seen simultaneously as omnipotent and incompetent....

By creating a vibrant debate about common problems, aims and responsibilities,  pro-social strategy seeks to reinstate democratic politics as the process by which citizens give permission to their representatives to act on their behalf.

This shift in thinking is not simply about rolling back the state or taking politicians down a peg or two. The implications for government are not so much about its size but as about its ways of working. The implications for politics are not so much about politicians letting go as about citizens taking hold.’ Pro-social politics’ would not be seen in terms of conflict between us (citizens) and them (politicians). Politics would be about us and us and us.

‘Us’ because it would be about what we as citizens want to achieve and what we need to do to achieve it.

‘Us’ because it would be about recognising the different interests, views and resources of different parts of society and accepting the challenge of reconciling these differences rather than simply asserting our own demands and resenting any attempt by politicians to sort it out.

‘Us’ because this would be a process in which we would need to confront more fully the truth that we each of us have our own conflicting interests, views and aims. The apparent incompatibility of our own individual preferences is a growing characteristic of modern policy problems. For example, we want to fly cheaply and protect the planet, to see our children as home-owners but to protect the green spaces around our towns and cities......”

 As Ben Page from Ipsos-MORI often says ‘the British public demand Swedish welfare provision on American tax rates’. The real problem with politics is not the expenses claims of MPs, nor even the power of the Executive, it is that we are unable to have a grown up conversation about the challenges which politicians can only resolve if we work with them: notably, public spending restructuring, population ageing and climate change.

We the citizens are stuck in a bad place; increasingly unwilling to be governed but not yet willing to govern ourselves. Proposals for reform should be judged by whether they are likely to move us towards a more realistic and responsible  democratic discourse.

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