Posts Tagged ‘Open Democracy Forum’

Open Democracy Webinar on Alternative Democracy

February 25, 2016

Last Thursday, February 18th 2016, I was privileged to attend a webinar held by the Open Democracy forum on ‘alternative democracy’. Webinars, if you’ve never come across before, like me, are discussions held over the internet between a number of participants. They remain in their own homes, and talk to each other via their webcams or digital cameras attached to the computers. In this instance, the main speaker at any given point occupied most of the screen, while the other participants were each shown at the bottom. I was invited to go by Michelle Thomasson, a member and a commenter on this blog. The discussion was an hour long, covering topics that have been central to the issue of democracy since the very first democratic theorists like the ancient Athenians and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. These include the fact that democracy leads to popular government, rather than right government; the problem of applying a political system that originally arose in small city states to large, complex modern societies, and the problem of energising and encouraging public engagement in politics and the political process at a time when increasing numbers feel disenfranchised, and that politicians are self-serving and isolated from the rest of society.

The first issue, that of democracy allowing the public to vote for the ‘wrong’ people, or make the ‘wrong’ decisions, is shown by the controversy about capital punishment and the EU. One of the female participants made the point that she wasn’t happy with referenda, because if one was a held on those two issues, the British public would almost certain vote in favour of reinstating the death penalty and leaving the European Union, both of which she considered wrong and unjust. She also made the point that there was a problem in that people don’t understand how parliament itself works. People have been horrified by what they’ve seen of it and the parliamentary process on television, especially since the launch of the parliament channel. She also discussed the problem of young people becoming uninterested in politics. She felt that part of the solution to this problem of increasing political indifference and disenfranchisement was for parliament itself to become more representative. She was in favour of quotas, and particularly for more women in parliament. She also felt that there should be more teaching in schools about the importance of politics, democracy and political participation. There still were areas for the public to be involved in politics in local issues, but these were becoming increasing rare as many local amenities, such as youth clubs, were being closed down. There was therefore a real danger of people retreating into social media.

The participants also discussed the possibility of learning from the Occupy Movement, which mobilised people against the cuts and bankers’ bail-outs across the world. People were disillusioned and felt that politicians were distant. One possible solution was digital democracy, but it was felt that this also was not the right way to go. They also pointed out that as far back as ancient Greece, politicians have never done what the electorate wanted. There was also the additional problem of democratic decisions in large societies like modern Britain. They pointed out that although the march against the Iraq War were the largest modern protests, most people still supported the invasion of Iraq, because they had been deliberately given the wrong information. There were similar problems with the reforms attacking and dismantling the welfare state. This led to a discussion of the wider problem of how communities could be connected to parliament.

Some possible solutions included the transformation of the House of Lord’s into a genuine popular assembly, and the revitalisation of political parties. Trump and Bernie Sanders in America, and Jeremy Corbyn over here at sparked an upturn in people joining and becoming interested in political parties. This led to the problem of how to involve other organisations to balance the power of the big corporations now involved in defining and influencing politics. They felt that the revitalisation of the political parties should be done through the existing political system. However, one of the problems with Jeremy Corbyn was that one of the speakers felt he hadn’t drawn new people into the party, but caused older members, who had let their membership lapse, to rejoin.

That led in turn to the question of what should be done with all the new political activists and participants, once they’d been energised, so that they could transform society. One of the men stated that the Labour party had declined from a genuinely popular movement into a party, in which people in suits made decision on behalf of the people they represented. This led to the question of local democracy in the Aristotelian sense. He considered that we currently have local administration rather than democracy. Most of the funding for local councils in England comes from central government, compared with Sweden where 80 per cent comes from local taxes. One of the other participants pointed out that the Coalition was indeed trying to reverse this situation under the guise of localism. They also discussed the way the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition had dissolved the regional partnerships, that had some success in regenerating the local political and economic situation. On the other hand, the Coalition has also encouraged local authorities to group together so that they could co-operate across borders. This worked well in some areas, like Manchester, but was less effective in others.

They also discussed whether Britain needed a constitution. It was pointed out that those nations with constitutions were not necessarily any more democratic than those which did not. One of the speakers was also quite scathing about the way the leadership in Labour party had blocked a bill on corporate funding in order not to upset the trade unions. The result of this was that the Tories were continuing to enjoy massive corporate donations, while trying to find ways to deprive the Labour party of money.

They also returned to the question of referenda. They stated that this worked in small countries with a tradition of direct democracy, like Switzerland. It was much less effective in large countries like Britain. As an example, when the Americans set up internet polling following the British example, the two petitions with greatest number of signatures were for America to build a Death Star, like the one in Star Wars, and to deport Justin Bieber back to Canada.

They also raised the issue of untrained cabinet ministers. Many ministers didn’t know how to manage the performance of the civil servants under them, as it wasn’t a requirement for cabinet ministers. There was poor human resource management in the Civil Service and poor project managers. However, expertise in specific areas did not necessarily make someone a more efficient minister. Andrew Lansley was an expert on health and healthcare, and yet his reforms were dreadful. The Coalition had also performed a number of U-turns, as no-one had told its members what the results of their reforms were intended to be. Overall, they concluded that the problem was one of improving the existing system, rather than overturning it.

All of these issues are complex and it’s fair to say that they need long and careful examination if we are to overcome the continuing crisis in British democracy. People do feel bitter and disenfranchised by their politicians. The scandal over MPs’ bonuses showed how bitter the public felt about their claims. Hopefully, more seminars and discussions like this will lead to the discovery of better ways to reverse this, and to bring people back to participating in the political process, which is supposed to serve them. Democratic political theory states that political sovereignty lies with the people. It’s a question of putting them back in charge, and taking power away from an increasingly managerial elite.

And if digital democracy is not a solution to this problem, than the internet has also provided part of the solution. Yes, there is the danger that people are retreating into social media. But the same social media has enabled political discussions like the above, by connecting people vastly separated from each other, who can discuss weighty issues like this easily in the comfort of their own homes.

A recording of the webinar, plus comments, can be found at: https:​//plus.​google.​com/events/cqjpogiqt6osi7fliui​4k4tkg4c
Thanks, Michelle.