Think big, start small - RSA

Think big, start small

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  • 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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  • Any step that brings more genuine, transparent, open-minded and well-informed deliberation on matters that impact how our society functions is to be welcomed. So your call for three obligatory Citizen’s Assemblies pa is a good one. Far from a lead balloon, more like “Launching the Real Democracy Kite”.

    However as presently constituted I see the proposal as more of a “bolt-on” to our democratic system as I have stated in an earlier blog. It is nevertheless an important one, as I perceive it as a potential catalyst for yielding a proper inclusive democracy, which is craved by many. Introducing the notion to people that they themselves can come to decisions on critical matters worthy of consideration by their elected representatives, might encourage them to think bigger. 

    Indeed what’s so special about the parliamentary incumbents and the decision-making process they operate under? Many are in safe seats and need not work hard for re-election. They are all subject to whipping to toe the party line, which most submit to as they crave a ministerial car or at least holding onto power. Most dare not speak their mind on matters adversely affecting people’s pockets for fear of failure at the polling booth. Many are subject to financial corrupting influences from the corporate sector or the well-healed, with some yielding. A highly disproportionate number come from our so-called public school system/Oxbridge. The party's treat important sectors like health and education as political footballs (ie quasi bean-counting) rather than developing progressive policies. Last and by no means least, they have failed to introduce regulation/tax regimes that more uniformly spreads the economic dividend from the globalised capitalist system. 

    This is not much of a CV for the vast majority and it’s no wonder the profession is so distrusted. I don’t so much blame the individual politicians per se, it is the system that is so profoundly flawed, well past its sell-by date. The time for tinkering with our parliamentary system has long past; a complete re-thinking is needed to turn it into a system that works for the age we are in/antiscipating, which exercises long term (not 5-year) thinking, exudes transparency, removes power from individuals and is trusted by- and really involves- the people. 

    This of course is easier said than done. But I think the upwards spreading of the Citizen Assembly ethos can be envisaged. This is where ordinary well-informed people (also ultimately all well-educated which is certainly not the case now) based in the House of Commons and supported by the Civil Service, with no vested interests other than working for the greater good, should take all the decisions that determine the way our society functions. And they do this for three years before returning to their day job.

    This spells the end of the era of elected politicians and I believe this should be inherent in the flag you are flying in your annual lecture. People no longer “enjoy” our parliamentary system, they are increasingly incensed or bored by it. I don’t think there’s any need to look for the loose brick, you are pushing at an open door.