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The campaign for real democracy

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  • Deliberative democracy
  • Communities
  • Community engagement
  • Institutional reform

The decline and potential death of liberal democracy is a hot topic right now.

High profile and fascinating books on this topic by Yascha Mounk and David Runciman (both of whom have given engaging talks recently at the RSA) were written before Italy was carved up between the Five Star Movement and the Northern League and before Slovenia’s populist Party won the country’s general election.  

Mounk and Runciman both offer important reflections on the same broad phenomena: First, the continuing rise in populism and a parallel decline in public faith in the liberal democratic system; and second, the failure of that system to deliver the goods in terms of economic progress, solving hard problems or addressing public concerns about issues like identity and nationhood. Moreover, both recognise the many flaws with the model of representative democracy that had seemingly been in the ascendant until a decade or so ago.    

The main difference between the two is about what can and should be done. If Mounk’s prescription was a film it might be titled ‘Liberal democracy 2 – this time it’s real.’ For him new leadership can get the liberal project back on track as long as it is more liberal (more concerted in attacking privilege and inequality), and more democratic (more open and less in thrall to vested interests), while also adapting to new challenges like social media. The problem for Mounk is less his account of a better world (rather tepid though this is) and more the lack of a credible story about how we get from here to there. 

Runciman’s rather bleaker film might be called ‘Darkness falling - destination unknown.’ He is insistent that we shouldn’t try to read the future from the past. Instead we should acknowledge that many possibilities lie ahead including models in which representative democracy has essentially become more marginal to society and in our lives. My criticism of Runciman’s scenarios is that, in his eagerness to open our eyes to the range of futures ahead, he has failed to engage with the things that might still be done to save some of the most important features of our current system.

In my annual lecture in three weeks I will setting out my stall in this crowded and noisy space. If Mounk wants to refurbish the mansion of liberal democracy and Runciman wonders whether there’s any way it can remain standing, my perspective is that we need to retain its foundations (which have, as another recent RSA speaker argued, made today a better time to be alive than any before) but fundamentally reconfigure its structure. 

The focus of my lecture is the case for incorporating democratic deliberation as an intrinsic and important part of how we do politics and make policy. I will argue this is a response to the dual failures of representative democracy, as the basis for accountability and decision making. On the one hand, representative democracy in the form of elections every few years offers an incredibly blunt mandate, while, on the other, as soon as people become our representatives (ie full-time politicians) they cease in our eyes to be representative of us as ordinary citizens. Equally, elected governments seem to find it very hard to govern either for the long term or adequately to tackle tough issues ranging from immigration to tax reform to funding social care. Deliberative democracy in the form of robust, tightly structured, investigations by small samples of ordinary citizens can - by generating a consensus behind wise choices - help address both these flaws and thereby enable representative democracy to become fitter for modern expectations and purposes. 

The case for deliberation is arguably even stronger at the local level. In my speech I will call for a national ‘what works’ centre for deliberation charged with designing, authenticating, and seed funding deliberation across the country. More broadly, accelerating devolution is the second restructuring that democracy urgency needs. As I discuss with leading American urbanist Bruce Katz in the latest RSA Journal, the kind of engagement and responsiveness people want is much more likely to come at the local than the national level. All over the world Mayors are more popular than Prime Ministers and Presidents. Local leaders generally manage to avoid the toxic polarisation of their national counterparts and - to refer to the RSA’s preferred model of change - ‘thinking like system and acting like an entrepreneur’ is as feasible locally as it is almost impossible nationally. 

If the overall approach I advocate needs a label perhaps it is ‘constitutionalist.’ The argument is that to save liberal democracy requires its radical reconstitution as a system. But, as I have said and as David Runciman pointed out at our event, the problem with this argument is ‘who is going to listen.’ It may be too radical for those inside the system (who don’t care if the ship sinks as long as they get their time at the helm) and too seemingly prosaic and modest for those outside hammering on the gates with pitchforks at the ready. We have seen before with Charter 88 in the eighties and the Power Inquiry in the noughties that persuading people deep democratic reform is necessary and that it could be relevant to their day-to-day lives is extremely hard. The one thing we have going for us now is it is becoming impossible to deny the scale of the crisis.

Ultimately the constitutionalist position requires luck, discipline, and generosity. We need to keep exploring ways of getting these arguments into the mainstream. We need to overcome the various organisational and policy differences between people who share the same underlying position (beware the narcissism of small differences). And we need patrons who can give us the resources to drive home our case. My annual lecture – in which I hope to announce a major new initiative - will be the RSA’s contribution to this currently uneven struggle.

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  • I think that Evan's idea is interesting and I should say that I was concentrating my thoughts at the local level because that was where Matthew seemed to be going. There have been a number of experiments to run one-off deliberative assemblies at regional level - there was a very successful one organised in Southampton in 2015, for example. The problem, however, is how to scale that up. The idea of replacing the House of Commons with citizens chosen by stratified random selection is interesting, although the problem as I see it is that it would exclude the rest of the population from the democratic process. I would prefer to keep the House of Commons as a representative democratic chamber - perhaps reformed in the manner suggested by Grayling in his book Democracy and its Crisis - but replace the House of the Lords with a Citizens' Assembly with members chosen by stratified random selection. Whatever deliberative assembly is chosen it is important to note that, as Matthew says, it should be tightly structured and informed with the most objective information available. 

    • Thanks for that Dickie. Scaling up I agree is a big challenge. I see the proposal to use the sortition process in the House of Commons as "Flying the Real Democracy Kite". Very high ambition indeed, definitely worth pursuing and with a following wind we'll get there. 


      The whole electorate I think would buy in to this because (i) they or a friend might be called next to serve in the commons(!) (ii) the idea involves rolling out sortition down to local level - it is the go-to process to obtain public opinion to feed into HoC deliberations (iii) quite frequent facilitated referenda would be taken across the whole electorate seeking opinions on sensitive/critical issues as per Swiss model. These are not binding but serve as important inputs in HoC deliberations. This is a whole lot more than casting a vote every 5 years to give the tweedle-dum party power as opposed to tweedle-dee. And if you're after change you wont get it you live in one of the large number of safe seat constituencies.


      I'm neutral on the HoLs although certainly get shot of the obvious free-loaders.  Currently many are experts and do expertly scrutinise proposed legislation. A very well resourced HoC Assembly might be able to do that anyway. 

      You (and Matthew) are absolutely right that any deliberative assembly must have robust and transparent procedures to gain public confidence, where money cannot buy influence. The place for such ambition is the HoC with well supported full-time members sitting at the heart of the best informed institution in the land. 


  • CORRECTED COMMENT FROM EVAN PARKER - PLEASE IGNORE PREVIOS

    Certainly I applaud Matthew Taylor’s ambition to change the way we do Western liberal democracy. For sure, genuine deliberation between well informed people is preferable for hammering out policy for the greater good, as opposed to manic heckling between politicians, be it in the House or in the media. 


    Politicians are further compromised by their requirement generally to toe the party line (often modified by secret polling) so as to hang on to power, but also by their obligation to satisfy party funders or lobbyists, undermining the democratic process. So much for representative democracy. The present system has failed to deliver in virtually every sector and it's little wonder that confidence in Parliament is at an all time low. Inputs on significant issues from deliberations by Citizens Assemblies (mentioned by Dickie) can help boost our democratic crudentials. But it’s nowhere near enough. 

    Expansive thinking must be the order of the day. We all seem to be hidebound by latter day instruments and posturing on how to best run our society. We should be aware that technological advances coming out of Silicon Valley may facilitate the taking of the political bull by the horns and then all hell may be let loose. 

    The blindingly obvious but absolutely revolutionary (unthinkable by some) way through this impasse is to replace elected politicians with ordinary people, selected by stratified random selection, appropriately forming a House of Commons Assembly and reflecting all sectors of the country's electorate.

    All other structures within Westminster (Civil Service etc) remain in place and Facilitators would be appointed to manage the interaction required to develop policy for the greater good by the Assembly.

    Members of the Assembly and Facilitators serve a fixed term (around 3 years) are well paid with secretarial and security support. Each assembly member has a “shadow” who works in his/her constituency to provide local inputs. again using stratified random selection for determining local opinion. Lobbying is done openly and directly to the Assembly. Informed deliberation by Members is key to the whole process of good governance. 

    The Assembly would appoint spokespersons (possibly external to the Assembly) to represent them across the various sectors in the media and across the world. 

    So, elections no more, but public input for consideration by the Assembly on sensitive or critical matters would be obtained by facilitated referenda as per the Swiss model. 

    Much more fleshing out of the operation of such a system is obviously required but huge advantages accrue. Transparency, trustworthiness and real progressive policy development among them, but possibly the most important is that it prevents any person having power and, thereby corruption, the blight in all our political houses, is no more. 

    In his much anticipated 2018 lecture I politely call on Matthew with his inspired leadership of the RSA, to grab this nettle and to consider this proposal amongst the others he mentions in his blog.

  • Certainly I applaud Matthew Taylor’s ambition to change the way we do Western liberal democracy. For sure, genuine deliberation between well informed people is preferable for hammering out policy for the greater good, as opposed to manic heckling between politicians, be it in the House or in the media. 


    Politicians are further compromised by their requirement generally to toe the party line (often modified by secret polling) so as to hang on to power, but also by their obligation to satisfy party funders or lobbyists, undermining the democratic process. So much for representative democracy. The present system has failed to deliver in virtually every sector and it's little wonder that confidence in Parliament is at an all time low. Inputs on significant issues from deliberations by Citizens Assemblies (mentioned by Dickie) can help boost our democratic crudentials. But it’s nowhere near enough. 

    Expansive thinking must be the order of the day. We all seem to be hidebound by latter day instruments and posturing on how to best run our society. We should be aware that technological advances coming out of Silicon Valley may facilitate the taking of the political bull by the horns and then all hell may be let loose. 

    The blindingly obvious but absolutely revolutionary (unthinkable by some) way through this impasse is to replace elected politicians with ordinary people, selected by stratified random selection, appropriately forming a House of Commons Assembly and reflecting all sectors of the country's electorate.

    All other structures within Westminster (Civil Service etc) remain in place and Facilitators would be appointed to manage the interaction required to develop policy for the greater good by the Assembly.

    Members of the Assembly and Facilitators serve a fixed term (around 3 years) are well paid with secretarial and security support. Each assembly member has a “shadow” who works in his/her constituency to provide local inputs. Lobbying is done openly and directly to the Assembly. Informed deliberation by Members is key to the whole process of good governance. 

    The Assembly would appoint spokespersons (possibly external to the Assembly) to represent them across the various sectors in the media and across the world. 

    So, elections no more, but public input for consideration by the Assembly on sensitive or critical matters would be obtained by facilitated referenda as per the Swiss model. 

    Much more fleshing out of the operation of such a system is obviously required but huge advantages accrue. Transparency, trustworthiness and real progressive policy development among them, but possibly the most important is that it prevents any person having power and, thereby corruption, the blight in all our political houses, is no more. 

    In his much anticipated 2018 lecture I politely call on Matthew with his inspired leadership of the RSA, to grab this nettle and to consider this proposal amongst the others he mentions in his blog.

  • For classical Athens it was accepted that voting your representatives into office was the high road to tyranny. The philosophers set this out clearly. The people assented.

      Our lauded ‘representitave democracy’ system today embraces 40 countries and more. A few already have their own dictator installed. Several may be on the waiting list. Hitler is firmly in my memory (I am 88). Mugabe, is one from a substantial number of others and from another part of the world. All of them were created in the embrace of ‘representative democracy’.

      For the UK today it is time to cut to the chase:

    - Eliminate politicians from our House of Commons by random choice of parliamentarians from local electoral registers, without making any other sudden changes.

    - Until something new emerges, keep the lot, including special committees, the clerks office, the Speaker, even Black Rod.

    - Civil servants will continue running the country, the job they are paid to do.

      And so forth…

      A.C. Grayling when asked to comment - in professorial mode - told me this was called Sortition. Yes, interesting. More to point, he declared the outcome would almost certainly be better than what we have got – but how do we persuade a conservative and tribal british people to go along with it.

      How, indeed?

                                                Jasper Tomlinson, New Kent Road, London.

  • I have read and thought carefully upon everything published by the RSA on this matter, and nothing can dispel my deep doubts over anything that seeks to restrict or replace our most fundamental and hard worn rights - to free speech, to free association, to form and join political parties, to universal suffrage (though barely a century old) and to the secret ballot.

    There is currently a lively dialogue between left and right on what should be common ground, opposition to illiberal authoritarianism. What constitutes illiberal authoritarianism, however, could not be more differently defined. For the right, it is central command and control, abnegation of direct and popular democracy, restrictions on free speech, loss of national sovereignty, the power of the global corporates and their alliance with forms of super-national and international government. For the left, it means the undermining of benign expert and technocratic public administration, abusing the credulity and anxiety of the less-educated masses, the threat of raw nationalism, and the rejection of super national and international bodies that define and uphold standards of rights and justice.

    I suppose the one benefit of this near universal opposition to illiberal authoritarianism is that we're all of us now liberals - but liberals of very divergent types. On the right, the 'classical liberals' trace a lineage back to the roots of the RSA and the fathers of the first and second enlightenments - Burke, Locke, Hobbes, Adam Smith, JS Mill. Jordan Peterson is a typical member - and his Channel Four interview with Cathy Newman on You Tube now has over ten million views.

    I'm not sure what to term the opposite kind of liberals - Matthew uses the term 'democratic liberals' but perhaps 'progressive liberals' or 'social liberals' would be better.

    In June 2016 there was spoof Guardian headline screaming 'The wrong people are using democracy!' that actually uncovered an uncomfortable truth. From this event have evolved proposals to change democracy to make it better - including both the RSA's ideas about deliberative democracy, and the proposals from classical liberals for direct democracy based on the Swiss model. All these ideas for new, improved democracy stem from a 'need' to tackle illiberal authoritarianism and a presumption that our current system of representative democracy is flawed. That, again, is common ground between right and left.

    I'm also very happy to see Helena Kennedy's Power Inquiry finally beginning to acquire the credit it deserves. It recommended a balanced package of measures at both local and national level to improve our democratic health without losing the great democratic gains of the last two centuries. It must have been a decade ago when I attended the launch at the QE conference centre, with a relatively unknown young politician called David Cameron speaking to grant it a fair wind.

    So while I can't be sure who either the real 'illiberal authoritarians' or the real 'liberals' are, and can't be sure that deliberative democracy is better or worse than direct democracy, there is one fundamental of which I can be fairly certain. And it is that our unique form of representative democracy at national level in Britain - our Parliament - has withstood war, change, revolution, storm, flood and upheaval. Tha fact that we don't have PR or a horseshoe shaped chamber has served us rather well over the years, as has our commitment to the most fundamental democratic rights that I enumerated in my opening paragraph. So whilst I'm very happy to experiment with all new forms of democracy at local government level - 'Prove all, hold fast that which is good' as St Paul said - I must oppose any fundamental change to our Parliament. It really ain't broke - and will come through the current uncertainties just as it always has. 

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