Democracy day is the view from the centre not of the people

Michael Sandel’s foray into the BBC’s Democracy Day sets the tone. Democracy is great, it’s so good that it can’t be trusted to the people. Others argued the opposite and I was particularly taken by Graham Allen’s warning that we already have a two-tier system because many young people, people on the margins or even those who lack the knowledge don’t register to vote. And Allen argues, rightly I think, that social media risks creating a new political elite. I’ve certainly argued that we risk replacing the old political elite with a new digital-political elite. And all of this followed an earlier report on Today from the Economist Intelligence Unit (yes, that known expert in democracy) that emergent parties from all sides risk destabilising Europe’s politics and economies. Destabilising for who, exactly? The people protected by the system, the banks, the politicians, the tax-avoiding corporates or the people thrown on the scrap heap through no fault of their own? It’s a sorry picture. People leaving the Labour Party conference had no idea what the Peterloo Massacre was or why it matters. Owen Jones ranted. Nick Robinson wrung his hands and tracked down some UKIP voters. Then Farage, William Hague, etc. And so Democracy Day lumbers on. But as it does I’m left feeling that we (they?) are at the very least confusing politics and democracy (isn’t the former just a subset of the latter). We need to lift our heads. We need to lift our game. Matt Flinders gives us a good account of the marketisation of politics but he’s still talking about politics. Where are the broader concepts of democracy? Where is the idea that democracy is more than voting once every five years? Where is the conversation about making policy open, about transparency in government, about accountability and about citizen-led decision making? Where is the conversation about how we make democracy an active, participatory process where citizens co-create the solutions that work for them? Nigel Farage really has very little to do with democracy, he’s a caricature in a broken system of politics. This is anti-democracy and along with the professionalisation of politics is at the heart of the problem. I was taken by the unidentified MP in Michael Sandel’s package who said that, since becoming an MP, he’s become convinced that we need proportional representation. Yes. We do. Flinders suggested that it is First Past the Post that holds the elite in place. I agree. The primary transfer mechanism between the public, wider democracy and politics is out-dated and ineffectual. It ensures the preservation of the elite and removes choice. It’s no wonder so many of Graham Allen’s constituents don’t bother to vote. Why would you when it makes little or no difference? And of course, not voting benefits those on the inside, it gives them more power. It’s still relatively early in the day and I’m writing this as I listen but so far what I’m hearing is the view of the system, from the centre, from the elite. I’m not hearing much about real, active democracy. And when we do get a non-Westminster view, it’s Occupy. Which is great (even if they are clearly positioned as the outsiders, the outliers). Their argument about corporate power is important. But again, they’re not the real people in the street. True democracy is a neither a cosy inside elite or a feral protest movement. That’s just not how I see it! Update (4pm): So, happy birthday to the UK Parliament, 750 years old today* but still very much a work in progress! And at least we got a little bit more of the citizen perspective later in the morning, plus a mention for the LSE’s crowd-sourced constitution. This was something that seems like an interesting if largely academic exercise with little public awareness around it. Perhaps the best bit was the Girl Guide badges for getting involved on Woman’s Hour, which sounded like a great idea. After lunch I switched over to BBC Six Music and it turns out that “BBC Democracy Day” really meant Radio 4 if you’re in the UK. Enough said. * And let’s not forget that both Tynwald and the Alþingi are a good 300 years older and still going strong!]]>