The Democracy Lab: Changing politics as we know it

Claudia Chwalisz

Historically, demokratia meant a participatory government where the demos (people) had equal kratos (power). Only since the late 1800s has this 2,000 year-old concept evolved into what we recognise as democracy today: elected representative democracy. It is summed up in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections.” But why do we assume that the process of democracy is as important as the desired end: people’s equally shared control over their government?

As participation in British elections falls to a historical low, the legitimacy of our politicians and political parties to rule over us is badly compromised. With the UK electoral battleground fracturing, it is possible for the next government to be formed with only around one third of support from those who voted. If we go by the 2010 voter turnout figure, that means only one third of the 65 per cent who turn out support the governing party. It’s no wonder that only 14 per cent of British people feel like their voice counts in decisions being made by the people they’ve elected to represent them, according to the latest Hansard Society Audit of Political Engagement. So far, UKIP have been the first to seize on this mood of political disaffection, offering a ‘voice’ to those who feel like the mainstream political class has been ignoring their concerns. UKIP’s rhetoric is hyperbolic and its solutions are simplistic, but the centre-left is ignoring the underlying distrust that’s driving populism at its peril.

So we should first ask ourselves what the role of democracy is, and then seriously consider other institutions and methods of democratic representation that might better serve that function. The way forward could be a true rebalancing of power away from Westminster, devolved parliaments, assemblies, and local councils to communities and individuals. We could look towards new democratic innovations, defined by Graham Smith as “institutions that have been specifically designed to increase and deepen citizen participation in the political decision-making process”. These innovations vary from citizen assemblies or ‘mini-publics’ to participatory budgeting, randomly selected councillors, a Citizens’ Senate, citizens’ juries, and deliberative polling amongst others.

Experimenting with democracy has been successful in other countries. In Australia and the Netherlands, the government is pioneering the use of randomly selected citizens’ juries to actively involve people in helping change their communities. Ireland, Iceland and Estonia all recently organised citizen-led constitutional conventions. Ontario and British Columbia held citizens’ assemblies on electoral reform; in Vancouver, a randomly selected citizens’ panel is making decisions on town planning.

The recently retired Chief Justice of New South Wales James Spigelman summed up why these innovations matter: “The jury is a profoundly democratic and egalitarian institution. Selection by lot has two distinct advantages. First, it operates on the principle that all persons to be selected are fundamentally equal and that, in the relevant circumstances, it is invidious to say that one person is more qualified than another. Secondly, selection by lot prevents corruption of the system.”

We’re obviously not facing a shortage of new ideas in how to improve our democracy. The challenge is how to regain the original genius of equal representation on a systemic level rather than a one-off basis. After the Scottish referendum, there have been suggestions to organise a citizens’ constitutional convention in the UK. According to a new study at the University of Edinburgh, only 9 per cent of people across the UK disagree with the idea of a constitutional convention, defined as “a series of meetings and events in which ordinary citizens and experts from across the UK could develop proposals for how the UK should be governed.”

Aristotle articulated the idea that to govern well, a society requires the contribution from different kinds of government – by the best, by the few, and by the many. Over time, we lost this last pillar on which our mixed polity rests. Labour would benefit from accepting that political reform has significant appeal to an electorate disillusioned with traditional politics. As the figures supporting a constitutional convention indicate, demand for change and for greater citizen involvement is clearly there. The next step could be to institutionalise citizen participation in political decision-making – through regular citizen juries or the other innovations mentioned, such as randomly selecting local councillors. These innovations aren’t a threat to elective representation; they are enriching additions that will renew democracy for the 21st century.

Claudia Chwalisz is a researcher at Policy Network and a Professor ADH Crook Public Service Fellow at the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. 

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of the Fabian Review.

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