Is deliberative democracy key to a 21st century social contract? - RSA

Is deliberative democracy key to a 21st century social contract?

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  • Deliberative democracy
  • Community engagement
  • Institutional reform
  • Leadership

My annual lecture in a few weeks will be on the topic of democratic deliberation.

I believe passionately in the cause but, as I admitted in a previous post, the challenge is getting anyone to take notice. On the whole people care less about the democratic process than they do about its outcomes. Indeed, this is part of the problem. So perhaps the best starting point for my argument is to describe the growing crisis, and some of the specific issues, that a better functioning democracy must help us address.

The collapse of the social contract

In making the case for my recent review of modern employment and, in particular, about the need for all work to be good work, I talked about the breakdown of the post Second World War social contract. An implicit part of this contract – one that tended to assume most families had a male breadwinner – was that if people had a job and stuck at it they would become better off year on year and would enjoy relative economic security.

The contract started to fracture with the economic downturns of the seventies but was irrevocably broken in the 1980s when the manufacturing recession destroyed millions of reasonably well paid, largely male, industrial jobs. The consequences of that process - made worse by the proud indifference of the then Government - played out for decades in high long term unemployment and family poverty, the growing regional economic divide, and (although there were also other factors at play) what has been referred to as ‘the social recession’ of rising crime, drug and alcohol abuse, and teenage pregnancy. 

The long period of economic growth and stability which ran from the mid-1990s to 2007 saw the emergence of what seemed at the time to be a new equilibrium, albeit one with fault lines. Most people could get work and felt they had a chance to get on. Communities that had been ravaged by the 80s recession grudgingly adapted to new economic patterns which involved, among other things, households becoming dependent on women earners. Investment in public services, and particularly in tax credits, helped people in the bottom third of the income distribution cope with limited wage growth and weak bargaining power. Many symptoms of the social recession started to diminish. There was, of course, an awareness of structural problems such as the scale of inequality, low wages and low skills, the rising costs of an ageing society, housing affordability, and regional imbalances but, ultimately, despite innumerable inquiries and initiatives, the Labour Government largely relied on finance-driven growth and public investment to paper over the cracks. Meanwhile, a deepening cultural unease around migration, segregation, and extremism, and Britain’s role in Europe and the world were acknowledged but largely seen by the mainstream political class as marginal and manageable.

In the last ten years the financial crisis and its long shadow of stagnant living standards and public sector austerity has seeped like a deep frost into those fault lines turning them into cracks and chasms. For the bottom quarter the social contract is simply broken. They must work – often in grim jobs - with little hope of escaping poverty and insecurity. The new ingredient is the social contract is increasingly broken for the middle classes too. The young have to take on huge debts to be educated and in many parts of the country have little prospect of home ownership. As well as expecting to support their children financially the older generation are having to accept long waits to see the GP and begging letters from their children’s schools. What’s more they hear more and more horror stories about what happens if you face a crisis such as needing an operation, requiring mental health services or having to engage with what’s left of the criminal justice system.

How does the future look? Real average incomes are still behind their 2008 level (the worst performance in our industrial history) yet many economists think we are in a late cycle period with (even) slower growth in prospect. We in the UK have the impact of Brexit to contend with. While over the longer term population ageing means a strong headwind for the economy lasting for the next three decades.

It was always going to be difficult for Britain to adjust to its place in the world in the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st. But many of these problems have been exacerbated by political failure: the ideological harshness of Thatcherism, the timidity of New Labour, and the incompetence of the Cameron years.

Democracy’s deepening crisis

Our democracy has led us here, now it appears to reaping the bitter harvest.

Thirty years ago Francis Fukuyama announced the end of history and the triumph of the Western model. Few predictions have been more lauded and more wrong. In growing areas of the world liberal democracy is stumbling or falling over. Talk about populism tends to focus on Donald Trump and Brexit, but the rise of populist parties is longer term and more widespread. Populist nationalism rules in Poland and Hungary and the new coalition in Italy (arguably the birth place of modern populism in the form of Silvio Berlusconi) is an unholy alliance of a nationalist and a populist party. 

In his important and controversial book ‘The people versus democracy’ Yascha Mounk (who speaks here at the RSA next week) provides evidence of a significant decline in support for democracy in most Western countries and a growing openness, including amongst the young, to alternative, more authoritarian, models. He argues that the populism he terms ‘democratic illiberalism’ should be seen as a response the undemocratic liberalism of  the late 20th century which saw power held in the hands of unaccountable technocrats and a self-serving elite. There is tendency to conflate authoritarianism and populism but what distinguishes the latter is its ostensible commitment to democracy. Authoritarianism is what often results from the inevitable failure of populists in power to deliver their simple solutions.

Perhaps the most sobering of Mounk’s arguments is that our support for liberal democracy has always been contingent. History tell us that elites have grudgingly expanded democracy primarily as a way of holding on to power. But, Mounk argues, the people as a whole support democracy only while it produces the goods, primarily in the form of rising living standards. When the public sees democratic institutions apparently unable to make them better off, while also failing to respect public concerns about national identity, they start to see liberal democracy as expendable and alternative models of illiberal populism and authoritarianism as attractive.

As a progressive I have always resisted the siren call of ‘declinism’. I still believe today is better time to be alive than any before – especially in the developing world. But to be blandly hopeful now is to ignore not just the pessimists but the evidence. We have to put the parts of the argument together:

  • for the foreseeable future it is very unlikely that any Government of our country can meet public aspirations for rising living standards, economic security, and social cohesion
  • the flaws of our democratic system are becoming worse with, for example, our main political parties becoming ever less representative of the people as a whole
  • social media, which is now the main site of civic political dialogue, is clearly better suited to protest, abuse and polarisation than problem solving and collaboration. 

This combination of a failure to deliver change, of institutional decay, and of social media fuelled tribalism seems very likely to further increase public disenchantment with liberal democracy creating ever more fertile territory for populist illiberalism. Strands of such thinking can be seen already in today’s Labour and Conservative parties. People might look at Hungary, Poland or America and think it couldn’t happen here. They are almost certainly wrong.

The ideas are there   

So, what is to be done? And why do I think that something as puny and dull-sounding as deliberative democracy could make a difference?

In the face of our problems there is tendency to bemoan a lack of ideas. This, I think, is mistaken. To take one example, last week the Resolution Foundation published an excellent report with thoughtful, credible policies (some of which the RSA had also come to by a different route) to address inter-generational and socio-economic injustice. I have little doubt that were these policies to be enacted our society would feel fairer, public services would be stronger and more sustainable, and our economy would be better balanced. It could help provide the basis for a 21st century social contract.

But what struck me about the report was the sense that while interesting it was also largely irrelevant. Even though the Commission that produced it included figures across the centre left - centre right spectrum almost no one believes that either the state has the capacity, nor our political establishment the incentives, to act with such clarity and boldness. The mainstream media was broadly supportive of the Resolution report but everyone knows that if a policy has risks or losers (as any major policy must have or else it would have been implemented already) those same newspapers will gleefully jump on the bandwagon of whichever protest movement is best aligned with the interests of its owners. If there is sense in which the Commission itself is to blame for being caricatured as clever but unrealistic it may lie in the limited public engagement undertaken in developing the case made by the Report. Deliberation may not always be suited to detailed policy development but it is very effective at developing and interrogating the kind of broad principles which the Resolution Commission advocates.

There are, of course, many other examples of good ideas failing to gain traction: a few years ago the Mirlees Review laid down some relatively simple but powerful principles that could help set our ramshackle and irrational tax system on a firmer, fairer more efficient footing. But, as the drubbing the Chancellor received last year for his eminently sensible changes in self-employed national insurance showed, unless we can find ways of engaging citizens constructively politicians will either reject or try to hide any tax change that at first glance seems unpopular.

Some weeks ago I spoke to senior figure involved in planning the country’s infrastructure. At one point he said something along these lines; ’we all know that road pricing has to be part of the answer but no politician with ambition wants to say it’. As the best examples of community planning show, with the right deliberative processes it is even possible to find creative ways to balance the interests of those concerned about building on green fields and those equally worried about a lack of affordable housing. Or how about cannabis legalisation; not just whether to do it but how to do it as safely as possible?

The ideas that could start to restore people’s confidence in the ability of our democratic system to deliver change and to act in their interests are out there. What we lack is either the political will or the institutional capacity to act on them. 

Deliberative democracy to the rescue

Over the last few decades, from setting budgets in South American cities to framing referenda in Ireland, there have been many experiments in deliberative democracy. Right now, closer to home, two Commons Committees have organised a citizens’ assembly to address another issue where there is no shortage of ideas but a huge problem about winning public trust: the future of social care.

The key conclusions that can be drawn from these deliberative experiments are:

  • While often being initially nervous, the participants in processes like citizens’ juries come to enjoy the process and to demonstrate an ability to engage and make soundly based judgements.
  • Despite different starting points, participants are able to find common ground and identify the many things they agree about and the few they don’t.
  • Participants are willing to work within the parameters set for the process, for example working within financial limits as part of participative budgeting.
  • Generally citizens don’t develop recommendations only for Government to ‘do something’ they also tend to become more aware of the role that wider society and citizens themselves can play in making solutions work.
  • While citizens accept that their conclusions can’t simply be enacted they do expect decision makers to take their views seriously and respond honestly.
  • The framing, design and facilitation of deliberative processes are vital. Doing it badly or not authentically is arguably worse than not doing it all.
  • Whilst it is easy for cynics to caricature deliberation, if the wider public understand and can see the process in action they respect it and the conclusions it reaches.

This final point is perhaps not surprising given that one of the few institutions in our system that has not come under sustained reputational attack in recent years is the trial jury, this despite the wider problems of criminal justice. Criminal juries and citizens’ juries rely on the same powerful assumption in the minds of the public; namely, that if I too had heard the evidence from each side I would have reached the same conclusion.

Deliberative democracy has the potential to bring new life and legitimacy to our ailing democratic system. It could help to address some of the flaws in our in representative democratic system such as the very blunt mandate provided by elections, the exclusion of ordinary people, and the dominance of vested interests - it could also help us design our occasional forays into direct democracy to make them more sensible and less divisive, as they have done in Ireland. Whilst my interest is primarily in face to face forms of deliberation, technology - currently seen as part of democracy’s problem - could also provide new opportunities. As Beth Noveck argues, technology can enable intelligent forms of mass engagement which go well beyond existing tired models of on-line consultation. 

Crucially, deliberation can help us have the big conversations we need if we are to develop a 21st century social contract: note the record of deliberation in helping people to be realistic about tough choices and also to understand that change involves society and citizens not just Government.

But it has to be real

But few if any of the benefits of deliberative democracy will come about until it is a full and integrated part of our political and policy making system. For all the successful experimentation, public misunderstanding, media cynicism and, most of all, political establishment resistance has kept deliberation in the margins in most places and certainly in the UK. This is why I am currently working up ideas that could be part of a Deliberative Democracy Bill with the aim of floating them in my Annual Lecture.

The detail matters and I want to get it right but to build momentum for change we must root the case for deliberation in the parlous state of our society and democracy.

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  • I couldn't agree more! But do you think the good old British characteristic, that is, the willingness to turn a blind eye, in order to avoid grumbling or making a fuss, and hope that somehow things will work out in the end - may also have something to do with the current malaise? I raised it as a possibility in a blogpost, "How the stupidity of English officialism played right into Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood speech; to devastating effect." You may look it up by visiting: