Last week I attended the inaugural event of the The Bernard Crick Centre for political understanding (you can watch a recording here). The debate was primarily focused on engagement in UK democracy. The event was interesting and a credit to those who ran it, but to my mind the proceedings were quite representative of how we go about ‘doing democracy’ in the UK: expert-led debate, well-trodden arguments about institutional failings, rehashed generalisations about disaffected youth and very few alternatives being provided.
The evening began with a lecture on the history of the House of Lords from Baroness D’Souza. Whilst interesting, I was dismayed that an event on (re)engaging with politics began with an introspective defence of the upper chamber and not something more progressive. This was followed by Professor Matthew Flinders who began his talk with a much more pertinent question: just how far away is South Yorkshire from Parliament, is it 169 miles or more like 1 million? Flinders argued that the UK public subscribes to the values of democracy (equality, political freedoms etc.) but are increasingly disillusioned with politicians, and thus want ‘democracy without the politicians’. The democratic deficit has become ubiquitous in political commentary and academic literature since the term was first used by Richard Corbett in 1977 in relation to the European Union. Predictable themes were restated during the event: career politicians, expenses, adversarial party politics – what was lacking was any real remedies to these problems. I vainly hoped someone might mention the European Citizens’ Initiative – by the end of the evening I was wondering how many people in the audience had even heard of it.
Refreshingly, a couple of potential remedies did come in the form of suggestions from Flinders: MPs being required to have held a ‘real job’ before entering the House and fixed terms for elected members. I’m not going to go into the benefits and drawbacks of implementing such suggestions, suffice to say it’s very difficult to proclaim the aforementioned democratic principles and then say ‘you’re too inexperienced’ or ‘you’ve being doing this too long, you can’t represent us anymore’. I don’t want to analyse these proposals because I think their existence serves another, more intriguing purpose. The recent failed AV referendum brought about a period of public conversation about democracy – and democratic innovations such the ones above can achieve the same thing. There was no doubt for me that the most interesting and engaging portion of the debate immediately followed these two small suggestions. Putting forward something new means that implications have to be thought through and questions asked: why do we certain things in certain ways? Is this function broken? What would happen if we tried something new? For every democratic innovation, whether it be successful, failed or merely proposed, there is a period of reflexive consideration of democracy by the public. Consideration of new proposals gets people talking – and not just the political elites, new actors get drawn in because they think that maybe this time, they might get a look in. Within the field of political economy, SPERI‘s recent civic capitalism is a good example.
Arguably, scandals (such as the 2010 cash for influence debacle or Jeremy Hunt and BSkyB) also serve this purpose but more often than not they lead to anger and resentment and ultimately turn people off politics. By contrast, looking at what we could do differently can inspire positive public consideration and progressive politics. So maybe we should spend more time looking at popular assemblies, direct legislation, participatory budgeting, community-led planning and e-democracy. Of course during last week’s debate democratic participation was reduced to voting every five years. There was no mention of local government, no mention of participatory initiatives, no mention of extending democratic principles into wider society (with the exception of an enlightened commentator on twitter who mentioned democracy in the workplace). References to Russell Brand were beyond count, but only two to Bernard Crick – the political theorist after whom the centre is named – and a total absence of any other critical political commentators. Arguably the reason that Brand is making so many waves is not so much the content or the style of his performances, but that he is saying something perceived as new – maybe those of us interested in talking democracy should do the same.
The questions from the audience were fraught with difficulty, not due to the content of the questions so much as the nature of the process and the reactions to the participants. During an hour of questions and despite a large proportion of the audience being university students and VIth formers from local schools, I noted only two questions from those under 40. One came from a masters student (via twitter) and one from an undergraduate student. The latter was notable because when his question went on for too long the host of the event asked for the microphone to be turned off. The host, with no hint of irony suggested that the questioner should ‘relent in the name of democracy’.
The audible disapproval of a detailed question from a member of Unlock Democracy was another low point. This contribution, labelled ‘very rude’ by one young ‘Eurosceptic Conservative’ politics student on twitter, was probably one of the more pertinent and well-evidenced questions of the evening. It regarded the lack of legitimacy in the Lords. In response Baroness D’Souza claimed that the Lords deferred to the Coalition’s controversial Health and Social Care Act (2012) due to the Salisbury Convention (around 1:15:00 on the video). When it was pointed out that the Bill was not to be found the Conservative manifesto (although some measures were) or the Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition agreement, thus making the Salisbury Convention irrelevant, the Baroness’ subsequent defence was ‘it’s all very complicated’. The veracity of the claims from both sides, and the condescending answer from the Baroness are not the salient points here, the difficulty I had with this exchange was the dismissive spirit of the answer and even worse the irritable reaction from the audience to a legitimate question.
References to apathetic citizens are boundless but when we see instances of people trying to hold politicians to account they are labelled rude or thought of pejoratively as the ‘usual suspects’. Movements such as Occupy London (which attracted 3,000 people on its first day) are dismissed out of hand by the establishment with breathtaking arrogance and this is regarded as business as usual – a private citizen in a public forum asks a question of a parliamentarian holding one of the most privileged positions in the land and we fidget and criticise her. Perhaps we really do need to be looking at different ways of doing democracy.
By far the most engaged and interesting debate of the evening was on Twitter. This is increasingly the case with many conferences I’ve attended – possibly it’s because people are more critical and more candid, but I suspect it’s because greater numbers have a voice and you hear a wider spread of opinion. I think the most important reason however is that not everything is tied directly to the agenda. People go off on tangents and suggest new ways of looking at things. Maybe we should stop talking in the same ways about how few people are voting, how party membership is down, and how politicians don’t operate in the ‘real world’ and instead think about new ways of doing democracy, at least then people might want to listen.
By Matthew Wargent.
You can find out more about Matthew on our contributors page.