In political times oscillating between leave it to the experts and post-truth, too often the people are assigned little more than a cameo role. And in times when deliberate falsehoods can take such hold, it can be easy to bemoan the efficacy of democracy. But before we reach for the cynical view, it is worth considering that perhaps democracy is not the problem - it's a tool after all. The problem is that we've been doing it wrong.
This debate maps quite neatly the contours of an ongoing discussion with a friend who is more Burkean in outlook than I. Democracy is there to elect talented people to do great things on our behalf. My take is rather more republican in outlook. Many pints have been consumed in the agitation of this dialectic. For the past couple of years my republicanism has been ever more defensive.
My best argument is that it's just not convincing that representative democracy, when left to its own devices, is coming up with the best outcomes.
Yesterday, another incomplete and likely unfair attempt - as some individuals face catastrophic risks while - to fund social care was announced. Credit to the Conservatives but it's the wrong package - without an insurance component individuals can face catastrophic risk. And so the social care challenge will go unresolved for a few more years. And this is just one high challenge public policy area that will remain unaddressed.
Thinking beyond social policy, I quickly dashed off a list of other major public policy failures and reached quite a number in a very short space of time. These are not failures of ideology, they are failures of efficacy – policy has not achieved the desired outcome or even close to it. In some cases things are getting better but at a grinding pace. Perhaps you can add to the list?
1. Social care - no fair and sufficient funding mechanism has been implemented.
2. The constitution - power and resources are asymmetrically distributed; democratic choice is constrained.
3. The welfare state - a system that leads people to hunger is not a functioning system in a developed nation.
4. Productivity - the UK has persistent low productivity growth which creates balance of trade issues and feeds into low wage growth.
5. Adult education - the ability to access high quality education and training opportunities is poor.
6. Mental health - access to timely, intensive support and care is weak.
7. The NHS - a financial crisis is snowballing; at the same time the degree of choice and agency patients have is poor.
8. International trade - the UK has failed to find a stable relationship with its largest trading partners.
9. Prisons - reoffending rates are high; safety in prisons is a growing concern.
10. Housing - where to begin?
11. Environment - our progress in reducing carbon emissions has been too slow (although carbon emissions have declined by a third since 1990).
12. Energy - we lag behind many other European nations in creating a secure, renewable energy system.
13. Northern infrastructure - the failure to invest in a decent rail system in the north of England (and Midlands) is abysmal.
14. Taxation - we are taxed too little to pay for the services we expect.
15. The gender pay gap - formal equality has not yet led to de facto equality – clocking up towards fifty years of the Equal Pay Act.
16. Railways - overcrowded, over-priced, under-invested.
17. Parental support - we have cut funding for direct support in the early years, now relying on the goodwill of struggling charities.
18. Schools - PISA scores have not improved in two decades.
19. Corporate taxation - we have reduced corporation tax without replacing it with a fair jurisdiction based tax on activity undermining fiscal stability and services.
20. Public health - we are eating ourselves to pain and death.
21. Technical education -let alone parity of esteem, we have failed to build a widely accessible, high quality technical component of our education system. UTCs are the latest failure.
22. London airport - we should have either built it or decided not to build it long ago.
23. Air pollution - we are slowly poisoning ourselves through the air we breathe.
24. Inter-generational fairness - despite yesterday's announcement on social care (which hits working age people anyhow), the assets of working against the retired population is still out of kilter.
25. Immigration - for a quarter of a century we have been managing a system of migration which has little public legitimacy.
Now, it is easy to run away with the narrative of failure. Policy choices are constrained, contested and complex. And there have been notable policy successes also such as reducing pensioner poverty, crime, smoking, teenage pregnancy, and increasing the employment rate. The point is more that the failures are significant enough for us to doubt not just the policies of a particular administration but to question the form of democracy we have been deploying.
Having spent a day with a group of Manchester citizens last weekend there has to be another way. These were the Manchester members of the Citizens' Economic Council. Two things became apparent. Firstly, the impact that being involved in a democratic deliberation has had on a number of members. They hadn’t necessarily changed their political views (though they often had in subtle ways). But some of the participants explained how being involved in challenging material related to the economy had increased their sense self-confidence and agency to engage in policy issues. One also told me that she had begun making very different life decisions, eg around savings, as a result of her involvement and was now trying to engage work colleagues in wider policy discussion.
There was a very interesting process of policy engagement and development also. Participants found policy development hard – as the list above might prove. In the beginning, they found it difficult to even frame the problem. Then policy ideas were in short supply. Over time, the ideas started to flow but they were unrealistic, absent of trade-offs and parameters. They then started to challenge themselves with the trade-offs and parameters and the policies were refined. They quickly moved on from tax this and spend that to the actually mechanisms and phasing, e.g. to improve investment in local care, ending up with some practical ideas.
And here is the gap in the way we currently do politics and policy. Even if policy successes were far easier to list than the failures, there would be virtue in involving people more for the good it does them as individuals, the cultivation of new civic relationships, and reinforcing the ability of all citizens to distinguish between the credible (though contested) and the fake or dishonest.
Yet, the failures are far more plentiful than the successes. And so frankly, what do we have to lose? The case for a republican politics grounded in citizenship and involvement becomes ever stronger.