Our democracy is broken

While in so many obvious and petrifying ways politics has never been bleaker, there is a level on which I have never felt more optimistic. And for better reasons than “it is the start of January and optimism is required” or “things had to get this broken before energy would be mustered to fix them”.

A huge amount of thinking is starting to crystallise around solutions that approach multiple crises at once, in innovations such as locally owned renewable energy, a basic citizen’s income or a mass social housing programme. The ideas are there to enact; but that won’t happen without sustained and coherent democratic pressure, which in itself is not possible unless we reconnect with our democracy. It’s rather an abstract, utopian ideal – to fall back in love with institutions, representation, all the process involved in the pooling of power. Yet there is exhilaration in the detail.

The broad consensus is that everyone is sick of politicians. On the one hand, eminences grises such as Gus O’Donnell (chosen randomly as the most recent example) connect living standards to the disenchantment. The more stagnant people’s wages, the worse their conditions, the higher their rents, the more disillusioned with mainstream politics they’re likely to be. The counter-argument is that MPs are simply bad people: witness the expenses scandal, or Iain Duncan Smith. Far from giving a clear map of the terrain, these perspectives are just features of it: bogs and pitfalls.

The real crisis of faith is not in politicians but in democracy, and this is common across the OECD countries. The World Economic Forum details its extent: from Sweden to New Zealand, Britain to the US, the percentage of people who say that it is “essential” to live in a democracy has dropped from around 70% among those born in the 1930s, to around 25% for those born in the 1980s.

Part of this is sheer amnesia. People born in the 1930s remember what the alternatives to democracy look like; it is ardently to be hoped that the young can be reminded by argument, and don’t have to see first-hand the devastation of authoritarianism before they believe it. The young are disillusioned, according to the Global Shapers survey, by bureaucracy, insincerity, lack of action and accountability, and a sense that the government doesn’t understand them.

That last point dovetails with the perception of insincerity. There is a problem with selection, a sense that politics is a career for insiders, people heavily invested in the status quo, who see their job as protecting it from the demands of the people. In 2012 a team of Italian physicists, economists and political scientists modelled a parliament in which some members had been chosen at random, like juries, and found the resultant system to be both more efficient and better at pursuing broad social welfare – as well as more diverse and thus more representative.

Party discipline perverts constructive action, while monolithic structures alienate voters with their tribalism and internecine wrangling. To choose all MPs at random would be to disconnect voters entirely from the process I prefer a significant element of deliberated choice, achieved through open primaries either within or across parties, in which voters rather than a party machine choose a candidate, based on open debate. The idea is gaining ground with Crowdpac, which, although the brainchild of Steve Hilton (whom I did not expect to namecheck in any utopian vision of anything), has a progressive pioneer in its chief international officer, Paul Hilder, co-founder of 38 Degrees and Open Democracy.

Once candidates are in place, progressives need to build an alliance, as championed by the think-and-do-tank Compass. This is not an idea conceived in despair at the failures of the traditional left: it is natural for a modern politics to evolve to build enough consensus to cooperate, while accommodating enough disagreement that we don’t feel our political identities have been compromised.

Finally, there is an urgent need to reconnect voters to issues, beyond politicians issuing mere platitudes and then being amazed when polls come back rejecting them. MPs are doing a poor job at making the case for humanity in the refugee crisis, higher taxes to fund the NHS, public investment to solve the housing shortage. It is not because they are inadequate people – though some could use a little more courage – rather, these issues are intricate, and cannot survive the over-simplification required when the primary means of dissemination are mass media and, if you’re Jeremy Corbyn, rallies.

Citizens’ juries – yet more jury-fication – involve choosing a group at random, asking their opinions at the start of a project, giving them a range of expert views to cross-examine, then drawing out their conclusions. At close range, this experiment can radically change people’s attitudes to a given issue, but more importantly it creates a sense of participation and inclusion.

I’d also broaden the net of what we think of as democratic action: voting is just the endpoint of the process, decision-time. It is given meaning by prior elements: the structures we have built together (the NHS); the resources that belong to us all (land, rivers, forests, air, schools, universities); the systems that we all keep afloat with mutual trust (money creation, social security). To take money as one example, even while, plainly, we don’t all have the same amount, we all have the same stake in its creation. At the moment, give or take a bit of quantitative easing, all money is conjured into existence by private banks, 85% of it as loans on existing residential property. It’s a recipe for unaffordable housing and unmanageable private debt, but it’s also undemocratic: the creation of money, which is essentially the creation of debt, affects all of us. There is no reason to surrender it to private banks, whose interests tend not to be the public good and whose accountability is pretty patchy.

Opinion is divided as to the solution: the economist Ann Pettifor favours tighter regulation of banks. This could involve a social benefit duty, forcing banks to prove that any debt created contributes to a better future for us all – lending to new businesses; lending for skills; lending for new houses ahead of existing ones and such like. Fran Boait, head of Positive Money, favours sovereign money, created by the government after public deliberation. The sine qua non is that the citizen is invited into the process, and understands enough to make the invitation relevant. A survey, now two years old, found that only one in 10 MPs understood how money was created; currently, we can’t even be bothered to educate our own legislature. There is an assumption of exclusivity, money as the preserve of the moneyed and nobody else’s business, a masonic code that leaves greed in charge.

All that fixed, the democratic to-do list will read: democratise renewable energy production; establish proportional representation; devise nationwide constitutional conventions; fund broad-based citizen journalism; and then arrive at the sunlit uplands.

None of these ideas are even as revolutionary as the “bread and butter” business of our current government – destroy trading partnerships, hose money at border control, stoke up racial hatred. What is daunting is neither the radicalism nor the effort required, but, rather, the hope. Pessimism is anaesthetising, and fatalism comforting; optimism leaves you vulnerable to every gust of disappointment, but it’s the very first of our civic duties.

— source theguardian.com By Zoe Williams


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