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Democracy • Participation • Engagement

Building institutions for democratic renewal

Mathew Lawrence - 22 October 2015

The UK needs a Democracy Commission to tackle deepening political inequality

Jeremy Corbyn’s improbable election triumph rested on a rejection of a political culture that had become hollowed out, technocratic and uninspiring.  He held up a mirror to the party – and the mirror shattered. Yet a summer focused on a democratic surge in the Labour party has obscured examination of the weaknesses of British democracy as a whole. For the institutions, technologies and practices of British democracy, inventions from before the time of universal suffrage in most cases, are now clearly failing to keep pace with social change. Political inequality is rising and power is becoming increasingly concentrated.

The general election clarified our evolution towards a divided democracy, underscoring how sharp, sustained differences in participation and voice by age, class, ethnicity and region have become entrenched. As IPPR’s recent report into political inequality shows, less than half of 18–24-year-olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of ‘AB’ individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of ‘DE’ registered voters. Critically, democratic division has deepened over time. In 1987, for example, turnout inequality by class was almost non-existent and age-based differences were significantly lower; cleavages in both have steadily risen over the past quarter century.

Moreover, today’s unequal electoral participation rates reflect underlying inequalities in levels of political participation more broadly, and – critically – perceptions of the fairness and efficacy of British democracy. For example, our polling showed that a striking 63 per cent of ‘DE’ individuals think that it serves their interests badly, while ‘AB’ voters are evenly split.  Political inequality – where certain individuals or groups participate more in, and have greater influence over, political decision-making, and through those decisions, benefit from unequal outcomes, despite procedural equality in the democratic process – is therefore seemingly ingrained, undermining the legitimacy and health of our democracy.

Deepening political inequality is both a cause and consequence of a number of significant trends in developed democracies: class and political identities have weakened, parties have drifted from their anchors in civil society left to ‘rule the void, while populists of both left and right have surged off the back of a rejection of ‘politics as usual’, collectively corroding the effectiveness and reach of traditional political institutions. Reinforcing the post-democratic drift, the evolution of the UK’s political economy has shrunk the potential scope for and influence of collective political action and democratic participation.

If we accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Indeed, without significant change, we may well find that just as Thomas Piketty showed that falling economic inequality in the postwar era was an aberration brought on by the circumstances of a specific historical juncture, so declining political inequality in the postwar era could come to look like a historically contingent, fragile and temporary political phenomenon.  

Of course, this is not inevitable. Yet avoiding such a future requires rejecting the present settlement of our democracy. Democratic reformers should therefore focus on updating the civic, institutional and technological architecture of democracy in the UK, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are heard in the political process, and with a premium placed on institutional reform that can foster and sustain powerful democratic relationships in society.

This is not to abandon the goals of the traditional constitutional reform agenda: electoral reform and democratising of the House of Lords remain as vital as ever. It is, however, to recognise the current moment, where simply pointing out the unfairness of our political system will not in itself resolve the challenges confronting our democracy, nor likely lead to much actual positive change. Instead, we argue for a democratic ‘war of position’, advocating institutional reforms that can be secured in the current context that will nonetheless advance incrementally, but irreversibly, the democratic quality of our political system and governance of our public institutions.

A Democracy Commission

A primary example is IPPR’s proposal for establishing a Democracy Commission.  At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than just the electoral process. A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could therefore support the renewal of democracy through an explicit mandate to increase broad-based levels of political participation and deliberation in the UK. Its overarching mission would be to better democratise political decision-making through greater public involvement and influence in the process, thereby strengthening democratic organisation in society.

The Commission could further this goal by three means: conducting and publishing research into what initiatives are successful at increasing political participation; advising public bodies and institutions regarding how to better democratise their functioning; and critically, by providing resources and capacity building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of participation or deliberation in political decision-making.  It could operate at both an overarching nationwide level, as well as having Commissions in the constituent nations of the UK, as well as in individual cities and regions, building on the momentum of devolution as a route to democratic renewal.

For example, the Commission could help facilitate local deliberative bodies or citizen assemblies, support local authorities conduct effective participatory budgeting exercises, and experiment with new means for the public to engage in political decision-making processes in more direct and sustained ways. Interestingly, the Scottish government is moving in this direction; the recently instituted Empowering Communities Fund has already invested in hundreds of community-based organisations to support the wider development of participatory democracy in Scotland.  A Democracy Commission could institutionalise and bolster such an approach across all of the country.

What is clear is that to address political inequality we must restore substantive democratic power over how our political and economic institutions are organised, thereby better enabling individuals to come together to make collective decisions that shape their lives, communities and workplaces. There is no single piece of legislation or institutional mechanism that can do this on its own. Nor is the solution to be found in the imposition of a centralised, monocultural form of democracy upon an increasingly diverse country. Rather, it can only be achieved by encouraging invention and pluralism in political life and supporting new ways of participating, deliberating and being represented, with a focus on building and sustaining powerful democratic relationships and spaces in society. A Democracy Commission could help that process, and in doing so contribute towards broader, much-needed democratic renewal.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR

This article is based IPPR’s recent report, The Democracy Commission: reforming democracy to combat political inequality

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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