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Think big, start small

Blog 7 Comments

  • Deliberative democracy
  • Devolution
  • Institutional reform
  • Leadership

To achieve democratic renewal we should learn from previous unsuccessful attempts. The whole system needs to change but we must choose our point of attack carefully.

In a week’s time I will use my annual lecture, which we are co-hosting with Involve, to call for a national campaign to strengthen our democracy, a campaign which I hope the RSA and its Fellows will spearhead. I will argue that this campaign should have only one top line demand. That demand is for Government to host at least three national citizens’ juries every year on topics chosen, respectively, by Parliament (through a free vote), by the public through a process of open on-line consultation, and by Government itself. Further, Government should commit to make a formal response to Parliament on the outcomes of each jury, both immediately after it concludes and later when the Government has decided whether and how to take forward the jury’s recommendations. In this way we will take our first, small yet decisive, step to incorporating deliberate democracy into our unwritten constitution.

My speech may be a lead balloon and even if it goes well it will take a few months to plan the campaign, but if you would like to hear more or be involved please sign up here.

I have made the case for deliberative democracy in earlier posts (which have elicited some great responses including the surprising statistic that deliberation is now so mainstream in Canada that it is estimated that 1 in 67 households have been asked to participate at one time or another), so here I want to explain why I am choosing what might seem like very narrow answer to the very broad problem of democratic legitimacy.

Although doughty campaigners have been calling for years for specific democratic changes such as electoral reform, reconstituting the House of Lords or state funding of political parties their arguments have rarely reached far beyond the folk interested in this kind of thing. But in my lifetime the wider question of democratic renewal has twice moved more centre stage.

The first occasion was in the late ‘80s and early ’90s with the Charter 88 initiative. This started in the pages of the New Statesman and was loosely based on the Charter 77 movement for political freedom in Communist Czechoslovakia. The initiative is best understood as a response to both Labour’s crushing defeat in the 1987 General Election and the centralising tendencies of the Thatcher Governments. For a short period Charter 88 and its demands dominated coverage of the 1992 General Election. Indeed some people subsequently argued that it contributed to Neil Kinnock’s defeat by implying a Labour Government would be distracted by constitutional reform. 

Then in 2004 in the wake of the disastrous General Election turnout of 2001, the Power Inquiry was established. The Inquiry was well funded and reasonably high profile but it achieved little traction after its final report in 2006 despite the attempt to relaunch its demands ahead of the 2010 General Election.

The characteristic both initiatives had in common – apart from their ultimate lack of impact – was the ambition of their vision. Charter 88 had ten concrete demands ranging from proportional representation and a reformed judiciary to devolution and freedom of information. As the last of these indicates, some of the Charter’s demands have been enacted to some extent, but I suspect few of its authors would say that today’s democracy embodies their vision.

The Power Inquiry was even more extensive with thirty recommendations ranging from the very broad such as electoral reform to the oddly specific; ‘The citizenship curriculum should be shorter, more practical and result in a qualification’. Again, a champion of the Inquiry could claim that it influenced some subsequent reforms but, equally, as an attempt to win a consensus for radical change it failed.

The intent of both these initiatives to develop a new design for the whole political system was intellectually commendable but was it also perhaps tactically inept?  On the one hand, more demands made greater the danger of alienating people who happen not to agree with the whole package; there is almost certainly a strong overlap between people who want an elected Lords and more devolution to local government (a demand of both the Charter and the Inquiry) but it isn’t absolute. Secondly, opponents of reform can credibly argue – as they did in 1992 – that any Government pursuing the whole agenda would have little time for the kind of things most people care about such as improving public services or growing the economy.

At the RSA we talk about ‘thinking like system and acting like an entrepreneur’. While the Tory hegemony of the eighties and the low turnout of 2001 proved to be temporary phenomena, the crisis liberal democracy is now facing could prove terminal. The election result in Turkey provides further evidence of the popularity of what Yascha Mounk has called ‘illiberal democracy’, a system in which elections provide a mandate for authoritarian rule. If we think democracy should be about how power is exercised and not simply how it is gained, our system does need root and branch reform. But with little political muscle at reformers’ disposal the best way to smash this wall is not to run at it but to search for a loose brick. Acting entrepreneurially means focussing less on what we want to change and more on where change may be most possible.

The demand for deliberative democracy has a number of advantages. First, we can show that these methods already work all around the world. Second, there is no reason why greater use of deliberation should be an issue that divides people ideologically. Unlike electoral reform or party funding, as examples, very few people have a fixed view. In the last few weeks I like to think I have convinced both some Labour and some Tory supporters to take deliberation more seriously. Third, unlike most other democratic reforms, it is easy to do. Although I would like to see deliberation set in law, the first few rounds of juries could probably be enacted immediately without any legislation. Crucially it is also a gateway reform in that once we have citizens’ juries they would be the perfect forum to frame and advance the debate for other constitutional changes, just as has happened in Ireland.

In the face of populism, public disenchantment with politics, and policy failure, democratic deliberation may seem like terribly modest answer. But whatever ideals we might ultimately aspire to in our democracy, it is not hope that leads to action so much as action that leads to hope. Better to aim for a small victory than to march toward another heroic failure.  

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  • Deliberative democracy (or any other kind of reform) will never take hold whilst we retain the outdated systems and practices that are at the heart of public disenchantment with politics. People will not be properly engaged unless the archaic practices of Parliament itself are addressed. MPs still walking through lobbies to vote, pomp and ritual, Punch and Judy PMTs, these all send signals that our democracy is based upon maintaining the status quo and tradition. A tradition which is no longer fit for purpose in the modern world. 

  • Democracy - government by the people; nothing inherently liberal about that.The 'liberal' in liberal democracy is the crucial bit; embracing as it does, the rule of law and an independent judiciary, freedom of speech, independent institutions, respect for minorities, and the rights and freedoms of everyone etc. If the threat to these values is as real and as imminent as Matthew Taylor suggests, and he is not alone, then there is no choice but to campaign for fundamental reforms to bring about; a better regulated and effectively taxed global economy, fairer voting systems, greater devolution, greater transparency and accountability from governors to governed, effective measures against corruption etc. In this context promoting 'deliberative democracy' not only seems lame, but is depressingly similar in it's outcome to the call for 'better education' that has dogged every debate about how to bring about change since I was a young politico sixty years ago.    

  • Democracy is comprised by the way the media is controlled and managed. There needs to be more community commissioning, a license fee payer elected board at the BBC.....and much stronger and earlier education on our democracy. Matthew makes an interesting point about the defeat of Neil Kinnock in part because of concerns about parliamentary time being swallowed up by constitutional reform. In 2015 Ed Milliband was also defeated because of media induced concerns about an coalition with the SNP. People are not enabled to think or be creative....our system stops constitutional reform (arcane parliamentary ritual). One thing to consider is why the Sustainable Communities Act has not worked. 

  • Very happy to support a trial of the Big Idea - and allow the whole spectrum of think-tanks, scholarly analysts and learned societies both to monitor it and pitch for advisory / consultative roles, to ensure the advice that can be called upon is utterly politically neutral.

    I'd also like to see far more experimentation at local government level. Since Blair's reforms, decision making is restricted by law to just ten councillors - a pernicious state of affairs that has not improved either the speed or quality of decision taking one jot but has effectively disenfranchised and devalued every councillor not part of the inner circle. For goodness sakes, let's allow councils themselves to decide such things, under central government oversight that guarantees fairness and democracy but isn't prescriptive as to how this is achieved.

    And as for MPs, there is of course one of the six demands of the original Chartists that has never come close to being considered - annual Parliamentary elections. As MPs decline to implement a power of recall, perhaps measures that prevent complacent incumbency may instead now be considered. Sir Patrick (now Lord) Cormack once famously snapped "It's country, constituency, party. In that order". He was rightly highly valued by his constituents right across the political spectrum, if less so by his party HQ, and remains for me the model of a sound MP. 


  • Matthew, you seem to have shifted from your previous position that privileged deliberative democracy at the local level across the country to demanding it only at the national level. I hope that isn't the case because one way of killing a campaign stone dead is expecting us to watch machinations at national level while we sit on our hands in the sticks.

    Evan, I guess we're going to have to agree to disagree here but I just think that people are unlikely to take kindly to having their long fought for right to vote taken away from them - just look at the celebrations for the 1918 and 1928 Representation of the People Acts - in exchange for the off-chance of people being randomly selected to be a member of the House of Commons. As a matter of fact I would be deeply hacked off if that happened to me! I see deliberative democracy as a way of complementing representative democracy while increasing the engagement of ordinary people at the national AND local level.

    • Apologies if I am repeating myself but the problem Dickie with representative democracy in its present guise is that people are disillusioned with it. It just isn’t “delivering”, as Matthew eloquently spells out and it’s not trusted by the people- that’s the main driver for other forms being proposed, like deliberative democracy. 


      But convincing arguments need to be made if the hard-won hallowed voting system is to be substituted for something else. In this regard David van Raybrouck’s recent book “Elections are bad for Democracy” is pretty convincing. 

      Currently, being able to tick a box once every 5 years declaring “I want this lot out” is a powerful notion, but it is not a very effective democracy tool in the modern era. You are likely anyway to be voting in a comparable load of representative MPs (tweedle-dum as opposed to tweedle-dee) to act on your behalf, still deeply embedded in our flawed parliamentary system. 

      Although the detailed protocol needs fleshing out, a Citizens Assembly in the House of Commons would be much more reactive to public opinion by consulting with the people via preferential voting in facilitated referenda (eg something like the Swiss model). The outcomes would not be binding but be an important input to their deliberations on nationally sensitive or critical matters. The ethos here is that intensely deliberated compromise solutions would be much more effective than the dogma emanating from socialist or conservative camps.

      Local level inputs could be made by each member having smaller CAs (eg 20-100 local citizens depending on the matter under consideration) at what is currently the constituency level, to deliberate on local matters. This process is best orchestrated by a “Shadow” working exclusively at the local level, with professional support from an organisation like Involve, who organise CAs. Otherwise work overload becomes an issue -as is currently the case for MPs. 

      My feeling is that we need a big national expansive conversation on how we can do democracy a whole better. Although the Establishment will be up in arms -their overarching position quite rightly being brought into question, ultimately we must reach a consensus on how to move forward. In the internet age there are clever ways of addressing this profound issue and millions ticking a box on a website could well prove a much more effective means of bringing about change, rather than the very occasional visit to the polling booth.

      Introducing the CA concept to formally consider national issues as being proposed by Matthew, a process already being undertaken by Parliament on an informal basis, could be a very good start.

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