A few signposts off

Reboot Britain

Reboot Britain

We can learn things from the way they elect Popes – and the way they used to.

Chris Dillow reprises his ‘extremist not a fanatic’ theme – that it is rational not to care too much about politics – and that politics benefits from our indifference.

And finally ‘Reboot Britain’ will be worth keeping an eye on – it will have a significant strand covering democratic renewal.

I’m hoping that it will provide another run-out for the PICamp project that started very successfully in Belfast last month.

Maybe now is the time

Here’s New Start‘s Clare Goff on the demise of the community empowerment bill (via Julian Dobson):

‘Maybe now is the time for fresh ideas to revive the collective voice and rebuild politics from the grassroots up.’

Absolutely right. Quick thoughts on the democratic turmoil, starting with three angles on those expenses:

Some people (including one who really should know better) have suggested that the issue of MPs’ expenses is ‘not that important’. These are the ones telling us that we’ve all fiddled our expenses haven’t we?

Well no, we haven’t. For a start several million of us have never had expenses to fiddle, and I suggest a high proportion of the rest of us haven’t done so. Especially where public money is concerned. So if you have a conscience problem, don’t dribble it on the rest of us.

Then we have those telling us that continued exposure of this systematised greed risks ‘making it impossible for people to regain their confidence in the democratic system.’ The archbeak’s piece in the Times is in my view not as bad a piece of thinking as you might suppose from the broadcast headlines – but still, it’s a bit feeble to tell us to stop pointing out where the cracks are in democracy just because we might make them worse. The cracks are the problem, not the publicising of them.

There’s a third angle which claims that our political system is less corrupt than many others around the world, so stop making such a fuss. Duh.

And those holding any of the above viewpoints are, I suggest, part of the problem.

Three significant themes seem to be missing or understated in the debate so far. First, clarifying the connection with the unregulated greed of financiers which led to the recession; and understanding the extent to which all this greed was given room to grow in the fertile soil of Thatherite individualism, and has been shamelessly tended and nurtured under new Labour.

Secondly, emphasising that many claims made ‘within’ the crooked legalities of the parliamentary system reflect a decline or absence of acceptable values. Where is the discussion about values in public life, where the code of behaviour which MPs could reasonably be expected to sign up to?

And thirdly, returning to Clare Goff’s point, we need to be linking this to the crisis of democracy at local level. The current shambolic state of Westminster is an opportunity for a fresh and vigorous exploration of a new kind of democracy. It will have to be a conversational democracy with a strong local dimension, and inclusive social media have an obvious role to play in helping us shape that. I want this debate to be wide open with low expectations of particular practical conclusions – let’s have many thousands of flowers blooming so that creativity can take its chance.

But we must also take careful account of the alarming proportion of young people who betray a profound sense of detachment and have never inhabited a democratic culture. Speaking to one group last week I had the sense that their experience of influencing the decision-making processes that affect them has been so scarce that they might feel threatened by almost any form of empowerment. All their relationships are shallow, they have difficulty with conflicting ideas, and they have little experience of organising, being organised, self-organisation, or organisations. They have been failed.

I can’t be the only one to see a connection here. This is about the long-term neglect of everyday democracy, and it’s payback time.

(And to be perfectly clear, I am very definitely not categorising all or even most young people in this way. See previously egKids these days‘).

[Cross-posted from the Neighbourhoods blog].

Reductio ad absurdum

Simon JenkinsContinuing Brendan O’Neill’s theme about the reduction of politics to the question of how efficiently politicians can tick the ‘democracy’ box, Simon Jenkins picks up on the calls for fewer MPs and councillors:

“The difference is that most democracies have many tiers of ­representation on which voters can vent their rage. The Germans run almost constant election campaigns for someone to something. The French ratio of voters to elected officials is 120:1. In Britain it is more like 2,600:1. The overwhelming majority of Europeans can name their local mayor or another official whom they can hold to account for most of their public services. In Britain the only representative people can begin to name is their MP, and barely half can do that. Britain is democracy-lite.

As a result, MPs carry a hopeless burden of responsibility. They must be national, regional and local representatives, chairmen of planning, social services and education, local health ombudsmen and elected mayors in all but name.”

He continues…

“We might think that the best response to the present crisis is to have more tribunes, unleashed to operate at every tier of government from parliament to parish. Yet both Brown and Cameron want fewer, both fewer MPs and fewer councillors in the form of unitary authorities. They want to take Britain from being the least democratically answerable nation in Europe to being even less so.”

Steady state on citizenship stats

The England Citizenship Survey for April – December 2008 was published the other day by CLG (pdf, Excel data). Overall, despite the onset of the financial crisis, attitudes to and participation in politics don’t seem to have changed much.

A few headlines:

  • Only one fifth of people (22%) feel that they can influence decisions taken by national government, though two-fifths (39%) think they can influence decisions taken in their local area. 2001 (an election year) had higher numbers, but since then these figures have been stable, only moving a point or two each survey.
  • Also stable were statistics on participation. 10% of people had engaged in ‘civic activism’ (being a magistrate, school governor, councillor or in other way being directly involved in decision making). 20% had taken part in a consultation or completed a questionnaire about public services. 38% had taken part in a demonstration or protest, signed a petition or contacted an elected representative.
  • Taking part in demos, signing petitions or contacting elected representatives was least prevalent among the 16-24 age group. Only 23% of them had done that during the preceding twelve months, compared to 38% for the population as a whole.

There were some interesting results in the breakdown by ethnicity:

  • White people were by far the most pessimistic about their ability to influence events, but were also much more likely to sign petitions, contact elected representatives or respond to consultations.
  • At national level, 39% of non-white respondents thought they could influence things, compared to only 20% of whites. At local level the figures were 51% for non-whites and 39% for whites.
  • At the same time 40% of whites had contacted an elected representative, protested or signed a petition, compared with less than 30% for every other ethnic group.
  • White people were less likely to feel a strong attachment to Great Britain than Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians. Overall, 86% of non-whites (91% of Pakistanis) said they felt strongly that they belonged to Great Britain, while only 84% of whites did.

Reinventing democracy

At the start of May, there’s a forum on the future of democracy taking place in Grenoble. Sounds like a fascinating event, although on the academic rather than practical end of the conference spectrum.

Pierre Rosanvallon, Professor at the College de France, has written an explanatory article for (of course) Le Monde, which is well worth reading. He sets out the themes and issues of the conference – here’s the money quote:

Un nouveau cycle doit de la sorte s’ouvrir dans la vie des démocraties, aussi décisif qu’avaient été ceux de la conquête du suffrage universel au XIXe siècle, puis de la mise en place des Etats-providence au XXe siècle. Il faut maintenant donner à nos démocraties une assise élargie, il s’agit de les comprendre autrement et d’enrichir leur signification. Elles sont à réinventer.

Trois dimensions apparaissent à cet égard essentielles : l’extension des procédures et des institutions au-delà du système électoral majoritaire ; l’appréhension de la démocratie comme une forme sociale ; le développement d’une théorie de la démocratie-monde.

Or, in quick summary:

After the triumph of universal suffrage in the 19th century, and the creation of the Welfare States in the 20th, a new cycle of democracy needs to begin. We need to give our democracies a bigger space for action, to think about them in different ways, to enrich their image and reinvent them.

There are three essential parts: extending institutions and procedures beyond the majoritarian electoral system; appreciating that democracy is a social form; and developing a new theoretical basis for transnational democracy.

Innovating on the cheap for better democracy

When it comes to technology start-ups there’s a nine out of ten chance that the idea will fail. Far from being considered a problem it’s recognised that doing something different is a risky strategy. But it is also one that can lead to enormous rewards if you get it right.

True failure only happens when the lessons learned aren’t carried forward into future projects.

Although itself notoriously risk averse, central government is starting to heed the message. Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell told the civil service to become innovators because,  “we have no choice but to innovate.”

So what of local government? The barriers are high; accountability and the use of public money stifle an innovation culture but, countering this, innovating online with new social media tools is fast and, above all, cheap. Working with the tools that citizens are already comfortable with makes sense too.

From Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

From 'Waiting for Godot' by Samuel Beckett

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EU citizens trust local government

The European Union’s Committee of the Regions has published a new Eurobarometer survey looking at the impact of local and regional government in the EU.

The survey shows that local government is the most trusted tier of government in the EU (50% trust), with the EU itself second (47%) and national governments some way behind in third (34%).

Interestingly for European democrats, most people didn’t think that the EU had a big impact on their lives:

9 % said they felt that Brussels influenced the way they lived. In sharp contrast, 38 % believe that regions and local authorities have a crucial role to play, while 43 % think that their national government has the most influence.

The full report can be read here.