Accessibility links

The EU referendum result revealed stark differences of opinion, not only about national policy, but about democracy itself. What lessons can we draw from our recent foray into direct democracy?

Mark Twain supposedly remarked that “if voting made any difference they wouldn't let us do it.” Well, it seems that in the aftermath of the EU referendum – a vote that has surely made a difference – many are arguing that it is a bad idea to ‘let us do it’. But rejecting greater direct democracy is a mistake. Here’s why.

We need to analyse the problem properly (and I’m talking about democracy here not the EU).

Some have called methods of direct democracy a threat to democracy itself, citing the Brexit result and its dirty debate as showing citizens' inability to fully grasp complex issues or channel dissatisfaction at the appropriate sources. The detractors aren’t new, Thatcher famously quoted Attlee’s concerns about referenda, and others have been voiced about the impact of the systematic use, at scale, of direct democracy on stability and development. But whilst the motivations for and conduct of the referendum left much to be desired we should not conclude that citizens cannot be trusted with decisions about important and complex issues.

Snap reactions to a contentious outcome (hopefully all can agree that 48 to 52% does not truly constitute a strong mandate either way) deriding the public’s judgements are not helpful and stand in stark contrast to the ‘take back control’ message from the Leave campaign which held so much sway with voters. Ignoring the questions this throws up about how we 'do' democracy and sweeping important concerns under the carpet is a recipe for further discord not harmony.

It’s in the way we do it - direct democracy doesn’t always mean better democracy.

Turning out in higher numbers, citizens appeared to value having a vote which counted more clearly than usual. This is what we want, and more of it: citizens exercising their democratic rights. But direct democracy by itself is not enough. If people are going to tell us what they think then the quality of the debate between them is key…

'And' not 'or' - it is not a binary choice between politicians and the people.

...and in that arena we should be ashamed of the example set by our politicians, with our political debate resembling more a pre-school playground than a grown-up conversation. This behaviour combined with the lack of transparency and humility seen in ‘expert debate’, particularly about economics, has caused frustration with ‘those who claim to know better than us’. But this does not mean we should sweep politicans away and we must be wary of denying experts a place in public discourse.

Where do we go from here?

Let’s be clear, such a narrow result on a decision of national and international importance, after dire political debate, resulting in anger, confusion and a distinct lack of engagement in the aftermath, is a failure of democracy. Which invites the question, how can we have good democracy?

The answer lies in something less sensational, less sound bite worthy, but infinitely more powerful in real terms – it lies in participation and deliberation. Because we can, and do, all have opinions about complex issues that deserve to be heard.

When Ha-Joon Chang says, "economics is for everyone", he means everyone.  There is a place for experts - but not all citizens have to be experts. What we need is for citizens and experts alike to recognise that each brings a vital perspective and to trust that together we stand the best chance of creating policy which has good outcomes for all.

There are many examples, from across the world, which demonstrate the power of participatory and deliberative processes in providing a framework for citizens, experts included, to come together and make decisions about complex issues. Matthew Taylor’s recent blog calls for ‘policy making to put citizens and mobilisation at its heart’. This is certainly the case with deliberative engagement.

One of the most famous examples, Porto Alegre in Brazil, much cited because of both the power it put into citizens hands and its long term success, enabled the city’s inhabitants to come together and decide how to direct funds, and to what end.

Facing the challenge of an unequal society, with endemic social challenges and infrastructure problems, the city took radical steps. In 1989 it began to ask its citizens how it should spend its municipal budget. Ten years later over 40,000 of its citizens were involved in making these decisions, through a process of meetings at district and city level, and the impacts were tangible: a 30 percent increase in houses connected to sewerage and water over the next ten years, a four-fold increase in schools and improved housing availability.

Almost half of Brazil’s 250 major cities followed suit and implemented this participatory budgeting process (in the region of 5-20 percent of the communities’ funds are allocated in this way). These cities saw strongly improved outcomes for citizens in areas of health, infrastructure and education. Participatory budgeting has now been embraced by communities around the world, from Scotland to Melbourne.

But participatory processes extend far beyond budgeting. They have gained popularity in areas of technological or scientific innovation where the public are uncertain or undecided. The UK’s Sciencewise programme has held deliberative programmes to identify citizens’ opinions about everything from shale gas exploration to synthetic biology, developments which could lead to radical changes in the way we live our lives, in order to support and inform policy making.

Deliberation has also been extensively used to make decisions about constitutional matters. In 2011 Ireland convened 100 citizens to meet over a year to explore a range of issues, including strengthening economics rights and the introduction of same-sex marriage, which was later voted in by referendum. This is a great example of considered deliberation prior to a referendum, leading to a result with a much clearer mandate.

These global examples demonstrate that engaging citizens more, not less, is the route to better decision making about our futures. And as the UK embarks on a new journey to negotiate our exit from the European Union, there is no better time for us to collectively reflect on what we want from our economy. Over the next 18 months the RSA will host a Citizens’ Economic Council – a deliberative process bringing citizens together to do precisely that.

Deliberation is not a quick fix, but employing meaningful and considered conversation in this way supports the development of a stronger and healthier relationship between citizens, and between citizens and the state.

We need more democracy, not less.



Join the discussion

Please login to post a comment or reply.

Don't have an account? Click here to register.