It is easy to be cynical but the Covid-19 crisis has shown that generally we are not cynics. Kieran Breen FRSA argues that people’s kindness could be harnessed to drive agile, creative and deliberative democracy
When I worked in Tanzania, I often came across tourists in Zanzibar who had been advised by their expensive hotels that for safety reasons they should not venture from the hotel beach area and never use private taxis. So scared tourists would pay five or 10 times the going price to go on excursions via the hotel in the mistaken belief they were protected from hidden danger. Most of these hotels were foreign owned and little of the huge profits they made went back into the local economy. In short, the hotels were scaring their guests and then ripping them off and giving no real benefit to local people.
I was reminded of this when I heard the Dutch historian and writer, Rutger Bregman, discussing his latest book Humankind as part of the RSA’s Bridges to the Future series of podcasts. He argues we have been misled into believing that beneath the veneer of civilisation, people are individualistic, selfish and cruel, and that we need a strong and controlling state to keep us all in order. As the seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously wrote, life without the state would be “nasty, brutish and short”.
Bregman disagrees and argues most people are kind and cooperative and it is this ability to cooperate that gives humankind its added advantage. The widespread community-led response to the Covid-19 pandemic suggests he is right. Across our cities and towns people have been looking after one and other through organic social action groups. As I have argued elsewhere, the lack of red tape, rules, working directives combined with enthusiasm, motivation and human connection all powered by the internet made this happen. It has been living proof that those best able to cooperate survive. Ingenuity, collaboration and a sense of community have been at the heart of it.
As we start to consider life after the pandemic there does seem to be a real desire to think about new ways of doing politics and of addressing the inequalities that the pandemic has thrown a harsh light on. Recent ONS data (22 May) shows that people are expecting a kinder and more united and equal society to grow out of the pandemic. Boris Johnson, the UK’s Prime Minister, has made it clear that “the coronavirus crisis has already proved ... there really is such a thing as society.” This all seems a long way from the neoliberal rhetoric that has dominated political discourse for the last 40 years and seen a huge rise in inequality. For me, the question now is how, at a practical level, we turn these good intentions into positive actions that reduce inequalities and improve people’s lives?
It has also made me think that what I saw in Zanzibar could be a metaphor for the way people are encouraged to view politics and the world. Viewed through the lens of social and much mainstream media, politics is not the place for faint-hearted liberals who wish to gather facts, discuss, and reach consensus for the good of all. As James Williams of the Oxford Internet Institute shows in his award winning Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy, ‘clickbait’ algorithm-driven attention grabbing headlines are the currency that funds social media. The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica data scandal seemed to show that small groups of very rich and powerful people use social media to manipulate and divide people and to create fear and a desire for ‘strong man’ government. It is little wonder that, post-Brexit, many commentators talk of a UK divided between young and old, graduate and non-graduate and city and town.
Yet, we know that experiments with citizens’ juries and deliberative democracy have shown that when given the facts and space to discuss, people often change opinions and consensus is reached. This does make me wonder – if rather like the rich hotel owners in Zanzibar – there are vested interests who do not want empowered citizens involved in decision-making and coming to a consensus. Might it be this type of deliberative democracy is viewed by them as a threat that could lead to them losing power and control?
Sadly, it is not only the stereotypical tax-evading super rich who are against power sharing. As Isabel Hardmen’s 2018 book, Why We Get the Wrong Politicians argues, our current political system is often run by cliques in parties. MP’s – or perhaps more importantly the party managers – see their role as delivering their manifesto commitments; even if often they fail to do this. Within this set up deliberative democracy is seen as a time-consuming fudge.
Yet, when our politicians reach outside their sectarian interests and start to engage with people in a meaningful way they discover the public are a huge resource of ideas, expertise, skills and lived experience that can lead to far more effective decision-making. They find that people can hold mixed – sometimes contradictory – views that do not fit neatly into a manifesto but most are willing to reach a compromise. Which is why organisations such as Compass, the RSA and others talk of progressive alliances, building bridges between people and encouraging the growth of bottom up democracy.
Organisations like Shared Future have an impressive track record of facilitating deliberative processes across the UK on issues such as community orientated primary care, mental health, fracking and shared decision-making. This feedback captures the spirit of the work they do: “Being a member of the Central Blackpool Health and Wellbeing Inquiry has been nothing short of inspirational. Working together with the residents has broken down so many personal and system driven barriers that have stifled change in the past. Now we see residents filled with confidence and recognising the power they have to influence change and how I as a commissioner can and have contributed to these positive changes.”
As we come out of the immediate shockwave of the pandemic we will have to make tough choices about squaring action on climate change with economic growth, tax rates and social care. I would like to see government and local councils doing three things. First, pulling on the expertise of the many community groups that have sprang up and seeking to work with and learn from them. Second, setting up networks of citizens’ juries to look at the impact of the pandemic on the local economy and community and to advise on the priorities and actions that need to be taken. And third, proactively encouraging community, business, and local authorities to work together on regeneration plans.
We know vested interest and organisational inertia can lead to resistance. Which is why it is up to civil society organisations such as those mentioned above to promote new approaches, engaging with political parties, business, trade unions, government and local authorities. We also need to look at how we can further use the internet and new technology to connect people and to drive the demand for a more deliberative and participatory democracy in a bottom up way.
Generally, people’s kindness and sense of fairness means they will help strangers, share their food, do that shopping run and stand in the street clapping our NHS heroes and key workers. Our greatest asset is our people and we need to find ways to nurture and encourage their good will and common decency so we can build a better and fairer society for all. Deliberative democracy seems a very good starting point to me.
Kieran is the CEO of Leicestershire Cares and lectures in global issues and young people at De Montfort University, he is writing here in personal capacity