This annual event was once frequented by the luminaries of ‘third way’ centre-left politics. Since then, the centre-left has fallen into disarray across Europe. But there was no nostalgia among conference attendees. Instead there were local leaders showing the way.
Defending democracies under threat
There was also a real sense of urgency. In his opening lecture, RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor warned against complacency. We cannot assume that the populist surge is simply a bump on the road towards a more progressive politics. The magnitude of the challenge requires a response every bit as bold and creative as the post-war settlement.
Célia Benin from the Brookings Institution argued that this response should take the form of a broad environmental and ecological project. Facing unregulated globalization and environmental disaster, the far-right say the solutions are protectionism, nationalism, and authoritarian leaders. It is the job of progressives, Benin says, to make the case for multilateralism, inclusiveness, and democracy.
Matthew Taylor emphasised the importance of democracy. Without democractic innovation, it will be hard to achieve a genuinely new social settlement. Debates about reforming democracy and those about reforming government are too often ‘siloed’, despite having much in common. Both will help us solve our other problems – not least by helping to restore the legitimacy of our leaders.
Cities and mayors are leading the way for democratic innovation and inclusive growth
Cities have been at the forefront of finding new ways to engage citizens and create inclusive growth.
For example, earlier this year, Madrid City Council established a permanent citizens’ assembly tasked with scrutinising municipal management and making policy recommendations. It can also propose city-wide referendums on proposals submitted by residents to an online platform.
This local leadership was the subject of the RSA-hosted session at the symposium, Bottom-up, not top-down: Democratic innovation and inclusive growth at the city level, featuring mayors and deputy mayors from around the world.
Spiros Pengas, Deputy Mayor of Thessaloniki, was elected to the city council as an independent candidate in 2010 and has since been challenging the establishment from within. Since 2010, the council has supported the sharing economy, promoting entrepreneurialism and helping many residents to continue earning while the Greek economy stuttered.
This has been underpinned by the promotion of a new, multicultural identity for the city. Pengas has emphasized Thessaloniki’s multicultural past (it was, for instance, the birthplace of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of Turkey), creating a narrative that both long-term residents and newcomers can get behind. At the RSA, we’re looking at how heritage can be used to create positive change and inclusive growth. Thessaloniki provides a promising example of its potential.
Kamzy Gunaratnam, Deputy Mayor of Oslo, emphasised the role of education in creating an engaged and optimistic population. The Oslo council uses its power as a procurement and commissioning body to promote post-school skills training. Any organisation bidding for a council contract must give a proportion of its work placements to apprentices.
Quentin Hart, Mayor of Waterloo, Iowa, discussed his own workforce development initiative. In Waterloo, free English language classes for immigrants and refugees are paired with targeted skills training designed to help graduates into meaningful careers.
The scheme is similar to Per Scholas, a demand-led, person-centred IT skills training project based in New York that the RSA picked out as an example of inclusive growth in action.
Rebuilding people’s trust in politics
These schemes have brought good jobs and a shared sense of belonging to people in Oslo, Waterloo, and Thessaloniki. In turn this can build faith in the political system.
But rebuilding people’s trust in politics requires new innovations. Deliberative democracy is increasingly a part of this movement.
A month after the Madrid City Council legislated for a standing citizens’ assembly, the parliament in Ostbelgien (the German-speaking region of Belgium) established a citizens’ council which will set the agenda for up to three citizens’ assemblies every year, starting from this September. Taking inspiration from Ireland, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon recently committed to holding a citizens’ assembly on Scotland’s constitutional future.
The RSA has partnered with the charity Involve to campaign for more experimentation of this kind. We believe that deliberative innovations can help to rebuild the legitimacy of our leaders. And that gives us the chance to create a new social settlement that can really last.