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Yesterday the Mayor of Manchester laughed at me.

I was at the People’s History Museum speaking to an audience of practitioners and champions of deliberative democracy from 30 countries across the world. They had been assembled by the RSA as part of an impressive week of activity around deliberation.

The museum hall is a restored pump house and, as I was giving forth on the role of deliberation in social renewal, a class of primary school children in high-viz jackets appeared on a high walkway crossing the room. I suspect it was the imperviousness of the excited youngsters to my grandiloquence that touched Andy Burnham’s funny bone.

But it wasn’t only the kids on a learning journey.

Teaching Andy Burnham about deliberative democracy

As the audience listened to Andy’s introductory speech, which centred on the city’s proud role in democratic reform from Peterloo to the Suffragettes before moving on the make the case for more devolution to Greater Manchester, it became increasingly clear that he didn’t know much about deliberation.

This led to a ‘teach-in’ session in which the Mayor was sandwiched on stage by our conference chair Professor Lyn Carson from the University of Sydney and yours truly. 

In twenty minutes, Andy went through three stages:

First, he said he was a fan of deliberation but only because he thought it was a synonym for participation and consultation.

Second, he realised that deliberation was altogether more robust, structured and authoritative than simply engaging with communities he became much less keen, voicing in turn a range of common misconceptions:  

‘Won’t it just involve the usual suspects?’

‘No, deliberation uses randomly selected representative samples of citizens’

‘Won’t it be dominated by those with the strongest opinions and the loudest voices’

‘No, deliberative processes are carefully and professionally moderated and are much more inclusive and well natured than debates in Westminster or the Council chamber’

‘Doesn’t it exclude those with knowledge or direct experience of an issue?’

‘No, they are just the kind of people invited to give evidence to the citizens’

‘Doesn’t it involve usurping the role of elected representatives?’

‘No, deliberative processes are advisory; all that they need from elected politicians is a commitment to take their views seriously and to respond constructively’   

‘OK, but this is irrelevant to the big issue people really care about’

‘Far from it, deliberation could be the way you persuade people of the need to make hard choices on key issues like taking action to reduce city centre congestion and improve air quality’

A lesser person than Andy would have reacted very badly to being publicly schooled in his own city but, to his great credit, he kept listening.

Third, by the end, he had promised he would look at deliberation first hand by visiting the Select Committee-sponsored Assembly on climate change taking place in Birmingham. He also said he would commit in his May Mayoral manifesto to at least one deliberative process in Greater Manchester, as long as ‘you organise it and find someone to pay for it’.

Brexit is irrelevant if we can’t change our society

Deliberative democracy may seem an obscure subject on which to focus on Brexit Day. Let me say why it’s not.

Like many other people my feelings about Brexit combine tired resignation with the sense that it is almost entirely irrelevant.

Compared to other rich world countries the UK is falling behind from an already low base. In a deeply depressing assessment, the Bank of England argues that the maximum growth rate our economy can reach without overheating is a measly 1.1% per annum.

At this rate, living standards will stagnate or decline, public services will lose more funding and taxes will have to rise. There will be no chance of addressing big issues like our huge regional disparities, our high levels of child poverty, low levels of social mobility or the crisis in care.

The already shameful way we treat our most vulnerable citizens, - for example, the homeless, offenders or sufferers of mental illness - will plumb depths we associate with developing countries. With the police overstretched and the courts at virtual collapse, in many areas we may simply have to give up trying to enforce the law. All this without having any serious plan to meet our ambitious carbon zero target.

Unless some kind of unprecedented global boom rescues us (and don’t forget the Bank’s warning that faster growth will cause overheat), the only conceivable way of changing this deeply depressing direction of travel is a fundamental reset of society.

To renew public confidence in authority after Brexit, we need deliberation

As I have argued elsewhere, this means reimagining and realigning the three major systems that hold society together; the system of authority, the system of shared values and belonging and the system of individual freedom and aspiration (broadly mapping on to state, civil society and market).

The kind of root and branch renewal we need involves radical institutional and cultural change in each of these systems and that the systems align to create a new and more benign equilibrium, of the kind we last saw in the decades after the second world war.

Deliberation matters because of its role in renewing of the system of authority. Done properly and as part of a wider transformation of politics, policy and the state, deliberation can help overcome the deepening failures of the representative system, can close the gap between citizens and rulers and can help legitimise the kind of hard choices (including choices by citizens themselves) that we have to make.

In the long run, it is a hundred times more relevant to the task of renewing public confidence in authority than Brexit.

It wasn’t turning out to be a great day before we heard that the Coronovirus is apparently unwilling to accept our new national sovereignty. We can only hope that, as the irrelevance of Brexit to our deeper challenges starts to sink in, people will wake up to the need to combine a new vision for society with the hard grind of everyday reform in almost every one of our major institutions. That’s certainly how we see our role at the RSA.

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