Taking democratic reform beyond electoral reform
Next week we’ll go to polls to vote for councillors, AMs, MSPs and a new voting system for Westminster. Then we’ll all go back to our lives and forget about politics for another year or more (well maybe not the people reading this blog, but most people). Shouldn’t democracy be about more than just placing a cross, or a number, in a box, or 12, every few years?
In 2004, as the centenary project of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, an inquiry was begun into the state of Britain’s democracy. The Power Inquiry, as it was known, finally reported, after hearing the contributions from hundreds of academics, politicians, institutions and individuals, in February 2006.
They made a total of 30 recommendations to improve the state of our democracy and give people “real influence over the bread and butter issues which affect their lives”.
From expanding the power of select committees to scrutinise the government and reducing the power of whips to a reformed House of Lords, votes a 16 and a cap on donations to political parties of £10,000 per individual or £100 per member for organisational donations, the scope was impressive.
There were a lot of good ideas in their report and I’d recommend reading the full document, it’s sadly still just as relevant now as it was 5 years ago. But what I want to focus on are the ideas that don’t only look at how to make parliament work better but that could begin to create a genuinely democratic society by devolving power and creating a culture of political engagement.
6. There should be an unambiguous process of decentralisation of powers from central to local government.
23. All public bodies should be required to meet a duty of public involvement in their decision and policy-making processes.
24. Citizens should be given the right to initiate legislative processes, public inquiries and headings into public bodies and their senior management.
27. MPs should be required and resources to produce annual reports, hold AGMs and make more use of innovative engagement techniques.
30. ‘Democracy hubs’ should be established in each local authority area. These would be resource centres based in the community where people can access information and advice to navigate their way through the democratic system.
Taken together these proposals could represent the creation of a new political culture in our towns and cities, where power is not something wielded by far away elites and bureaucracies, by a central state or multinational corporations, but rooted in community and accountable directly to the people.
Murray Bookchin describes society as split into three realms, the social, the political and the state; the final two of which are often, mistakenly, conflated. The social realm is your private life, your relationships with your friends and your family. The state is what we often think of as politics, but is really a professional, bureaucratic system distinct from the people in which most of us have no say and with which we have only a distant and generally one way interaction. Politics, on the other hand, is the activity of people in public bodies, in shared, participatory activity. Politics for Bookchin is directly democratic. It has to be by its very nature.
That kind of direct democracy is possible, but is so alien to our current culture (despite numerous historical precedents, not just in ancient Athens, I shan’t bore you with now) it will take considerable effort to create. A culture of political engagement needs to be fostered, and it’s here that the proposals of the Power Inquiry are so important.
We may not be able to decentralise power directly to popular assemblies tomorrow, but we can create structures from which they could evolve. MPs’ AGMs could be extended to be more regular than once a year, and could provide a space where constituents can meet and discuss issues in public, not simply in private surgeries (though those might still have a place for more sensitive issues). Democracy hubs, could perform a similar function.
Public bodies’ duty to involve the public in decisions and policy-making could begin to give power directly to ordinary people. So far, councils have, on the whole, been reluctant, or perhaps simply unimaginative enough, to take these ideas forward, but in the £eith Decides project run by our own Maggie Chapman last year and the Open Budget process in Harrow in 2005/6, we can see possible ways ahead.
Harrow Open Budget
On the 23rd of October 2005, over 300 residents attended an open assembly, for which any resident over 16 could register, to discuss and vote on key priorities for the council in its 06/07 budget. A panel was elected by the assembly, from their members, to oversee the implementation of those priorities.
In 5 sessions, over 6 hours, the assembly members debated in tables of 30 the various budget options. Each table was assisted by a trained facilitator and between each table session a team of analysts collated their views which were fed back to the full assembly to be voted upon.
As in our own experiment with participatory budgeting in Leith, most people who attended left happy with the outcome, 94% saying they were happy or very happy with the process and 74% saying it should be repeated.
Sadly, the minority Labour council in Harrow was defeated in the 2006 elections and the incoming Tory majority decided not to repeat the process, while the panel did express concerns about their ability to effectively feed back to the larger group.
But if the panel found it difficult to maintain their links, that seems likely to be due to the lack of supporting structure. The assembly itself, needed to be institutionalised and ongoing, and indeed expanded to take in more of the community. Rather than one assembly for a whole council local assemblies, at a ward level, or perhaps even smaller, should have been created, where communication and participation would have been easier.
Nevertheless, the project stands as an example of how municipal government can be democratised and power placed directly in the hands of the people. As the Power Inquiry reported:
We are totally convinced, given the evidence we have seen from across the world, and our own experience with the Harrow Open Budget, that when ‘ordinary’ citizens are presented with clear information and are given the freedom and structure to deliberate on that information, they will come to decisions just as reasoned and balanced as those made by elected representatives or public officials.
I’d go further, by creating a new political culture, a culture of engagement and participation, direct democratic structures won’t just give us decisions as reasoned and balanced as our current officials decide, they’ll give us much better decisions, more integrated communities and a process in which we can trust.
Our country is in need of real reform. Let’s hope some of the politicians elected next week understand that, and begin to work towards a real democracy. And let’s make sure we’re pushing them every step of the way.
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