Tomorrow's democracy - RSA

Tomorrow's democracy

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  • Deliberative democracy
  • Communities
  • Leadership

For many MPs being a politician is a miserable and humiliating experience which only really makes sense if you hope to one day achieve ministerial office.

And yet losing your seat can also be shattering, leaving some people disillusioned by politics while others become hired hand lobbyists wandering around Westminster like ghosts.

As one of our most high profile political journalists, Isabel Hardman spends a lot of her life talking to MPs. Her book, 'Why we get the wrong politicians', is a heartfelt and sobering account of the many dysfunctions of our representative democratic system. Apart from those already in the Westminster bubble, it is difficult, demanding and risky to become an MP, so most people are excluded from even considering the process.

Beyond the personal stories of exhausted and sad politicians, Hardman highlights the failure of the Commons as a scrutiny body (largely because it pays ambitious MPs to toe the line rather than cause trouble), something she holds responsible for decision making disasters ranging from Iraq and Libya to NHS reforms and the Dangerous Dogs Act.

What's the state of democracy?

I am writing this post on my way to Newport to speak at an event hosted by the council under the title ‘Tomorrow’s Democracy’. Following the city’s Newport Rising Festival over the weekend celebrating its Chartist heritage, the event will debate the state of democracy in the modern world.

The state isn’t great. Given that hardly a week goes by without a new book on the crisis of liberal democracy (indeed we discussed two of them on our Polarised podcast series earlier this week in an episode called 'Is democracy failing?'), I need only list briefly the main reasons to be concerned:

  • First, the high and growing levels of disillusionment in much of the West not just with government but with the institutions and processes of liberal democracy itself.
  • Second, the strong impression that existing democracies are finding it hard to deal with complex policy problems ranging from tackling inequality to funding social care.
  • Third, the rise and rise of forms of illiberal populism, with Brazil just the latest example.
  • Fourth, pessimism that we will anytime soon see much change in the forces that may be driving polarisation, populism and pessimism. 

These forces include include sluggish economic growth, the constraints global finance places on national sovereignty, and the tendency of social media to cocoon people in an echo chambers or fixed opinions and fake news. Looming technological upheaval impacting the working lives of most people may make matters much worse, particularly if we accept the idea of a future determined by technological capacity and corporate profitability rather than human values. 

For some commentators talk of a democratic crisis is overblown. People have never liked politicians, they argue, and populism is a legitimate democratic response which will force the reform of a broken system. Maybe, as David Runciman suggests, political democracy will simply become an ever less important part of our lives.

It is difficult to predict. But by the time we find out whether democracy deflates with a bang or whimper, whether the current crisis is a necessary reset or a slide into authoritarianism and violence, it may be too late to do anything.

Many of those who speak eloquently on the plight of liberal democracy argue for a new political narrative. Recurrent themes voiced by writers including Yashca Mounk, Francis Fukuyama and Amy Chua are the need for a much more concerted drive against inequality and to develop an inclusive, but unashamedly patriotic, idea of shared identity and purpose to counter the aggressive, exclusive, nationalism of the populists.

Quiet Reform

These are important and necessary areas to explore but concrete answers are hard to craft and to sell to a public which seems pretty resistant right now to elite voices of moderation. Yet, and perhaps it is simply a reflection of the fact that democratic reform can feel like a dull subject colonised by obsessive people, I am often surprised at how little attention is paid to the more prosaic question of how we might try to reform democratic institutions and processes simply to make them work better.

After describing shattered lives, failing institutions and disastrous consequences Isabel Hardman’s solutions may seem somewhat prosaic:

  • pay parliamentary candidates a modest wage
  • give select committees a stronger role in scrutinising draft bills
  • hold legislative ‘pay back’ sessions where ministers and MPs have to face up the first-hand accounts of policy failure.

But just as TH Huxley described science’s role as "destroying a beautiful hypothesis with an ugly fact", so sometimes the best response to huge and loud problems is quiet and painstaking reform.

Which is why this morning in Newport I am again making the argument of my recent annual lecture. This is for the country to commit to holding three deliberative democratic processes every year on topics chosen respectively by Government, Parliament and the people.

I argue this because it directly addresses the problems of our representative system (highlighted by Hardman among others), because it shows people can grapple with complexity (despite populism’s invitation to deny it), because the push back against deliberation is more to do with ignorance than actual hostility, because there is lots of evidence - from South American cities to Ireland - to show deliberation is practical and it works, and because deliberation can be a gateway reform providing the framework for other issues to be addressed more positively and imaginatively.

It was terrible to hear yesterday of the death of former Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremey Heywood, with whom I had the privilege of working in Downing Street.

As an emotional and dignified Yvette Cooper said on being told of the news live on air, Jeremy would have seen one of his achievements as encouraging politicians to avoid making needless mistakes. My recollection of him was that he tended to prefer careful experimentation to radical transformation as a way of improving matters.

I wish I could have known what Jeremy would have made of deliberative democracy, but in as much as the idea assumes that people make better decisions when they have considered the facts and heard a range of opinions I like to think he would have been persuadable.

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  • I like the idea of quiet reform and have always been interested in the potential of deliberative democracy (although only came to know this name much more recently).  But I wonder whether that is enough when you look at the levels of anger that have led to reactions against existing structures, processes - and elites.  I think real change sometimes has to upset the apple cart and it is on this point that I think Isabel Hardman pulls her punches: does she think that implementing some of her (entirely sensible) reforms will change the nature of politics and politicians or do we have the nature of politics that we have because of the nature of politicians.  She never really tells her view in the book I feel.