Re-imagining democracy - peoples' assemblies

This spring, inaugural Assemblies for Democracy in London, Manchester and Glasgow will identify the major issues with our clearly inadequate democracy and then start work thinking on how we could solve them.

Paul Feldman
10 February 2015

Occupy London. Flickr/wheelzwheeler

The Spring Assemblies are part of the unfolding conversation about what Al Gore once described as our “hollowed-out democracy”. Can we fix it with a few palliative, reformist measures? Or, dare we suggest, has representative democracy had its day? Do we, as Owen Jones thinks, need a “democratic revolution”? If Jones and others like Russell Brand are right about democracy’s failings, how are we going to achieve deep-going change?

The philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek can often be infuriating, writing nearly impenetrable articles. But in the Financial Times of all places (February 1), Zizek relates the crisis of democracy to contemporary, globalised capitalism in a telling way. 

Zizek notes how “authoritarian capitalism” is thriving in China and other countries like Singapore, and fears that this ideology will shape the next century “as much as democracy shaped the last”. While we in the UK enjoy apparent freedom, Zizek calls it “a weak foundation” for capitalism because our freedom is “also a hollow one”. It’s difficult to argue with Zizek’s thought that, while democracy survives, it’s in a “strangely twisted form”, incorporated as it is into market imperatives.

As Zizek explains: “When the hope of long-term employment is taken away, it is sold as a ‘flexible’ labour market, one that offers the perpetual opportunity to reinvent ourselves. When state provision for retirement is taken away, it is to give us the freedom to plan our old age. We are constantly forced to make ‘free’ choices — decisions we must make alone, though we do not know enough to make them wisely. If this is freedom, it is a burden.”

So a question for the Assemblies for Democracy to consider is the relation between the free market and democracy. Are they incompatible. If so then what next? A kinder, gentler, more regulated capitalism or a more democratic economic system? The dreaded Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) project would indicate a deeper authoritarian capitalism may not be just a China syndrome. Democratic change would almost certainly have to be accompanied by economic democracy for it to succeed. The Assemblies will have this on their agenda.

Even though the mainstream parties are haemorrhaging support as the general election approaches, there is precious little indication that they are concerned about the crisis of democracy which lies behind their predicament. It’s not just that they share a communality of policies; Tories, the Lib Dems and Labour are content to manage a political system that clearly doesn’t work for many people. That’s a key reason why we seem to be heading for a deadlocked Parliament after May 7.

The democracy question does stimulate other parties, however. Ukip’s seemingly irresistible rise has thrown down challenges on the central issues of democracy, sovereignty and power that we ignore at our peril. Ukip’s focus on the European Union – which undoubtedly has a considerable democratic deficit – and immigration is both nationalist and populist but needs a progressive response.  

By contrast with Ukip’s top-down approach – we’ve got a fix and you’ll do what we say – the Green Party is searching for democratic policies from its membership. Natalie Green Party told Occupy Democracy in Parliament Square in November: "Westminster hasn't fundamentally changed in a hundred years. The last big change was women getting the vote in 1918.  It's too late to tinker with things. The fact is the whole system is broken. What we need to do is start again, have a peoples' constitutional convention."

The Assemblies aim to go beyond the traditional party-political approach, however. They are events with a primary aim of involving the people with the conversation on democracy itself, providing information and insight to try to achieve a common understanding of the real nature of British democracy and its endemic problems. The goal is to do the hard task, the task that politicians treat as impossible, enabling people's voices to be heard and preparing the way for the people to have access and determine a democratic future of their choosing.

The forces that can bring change are emerging in various campaigns and actions. Scotland’s struggle for self-determination remains a massive, emancipatory movement. Opposition to TTIP continues to grow. The plunge in living standards imposed by the coalition’s austerity measures has brought trade unionists into strike action at the highest rate for decades.

In London, growing homelessness, the threat of eviction by property speculators, unaffordable rents and house prices are leading to anger and protest actions. Refusal to act over the eco-crisis and state-imposed fracking continues to mobilise thousands up and down the UK. The immense shadow over all these movements is a debt-driven economy that is staggering towards another meltdown.

The time is ripe to seize the initiative and create a people-driven momentum for real democracy throughout the UK. Assemblies for Democracy can help mobilise people for this alternative. The project is supported by a range of people, groups and organisations. They include John McDonnell MP, the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, openDemocracy, the Institute of Race Relations, Defend the Right to Protest, the Real Democracy working group of Occupy London, the Agreement of the People campaign, the National Community Activists Network, the Republican Socialist Alliance, A World to Win and others.

Different standpoints, visions, the reformers and the revolutionaries will be there to develop a way forward. The Assemblies will not set out to impose a view by majority vote but rather to engage people in a meaningful, long-term project which they control. Above all, this is an opportunity for ordinary people who are concerned about democracy to begin to shape the future they want in a participatory way.

The emphasis at the Assemblies is on working groups that hopefully will begin to re-imagine democracy. They could continue to meet after the event and will be encouraged to set up networks of Assemblies wherever they live. They could link with other initiatives that are emerging around a convention on the constitution, for example. These need to be people-led conventions if they are to have any meaning.

If we can offer a vision of real democracy and how we might achieve it, we will not only spike Ukip’s guns but can start to make history for ourselves. Potentially, the Assemblies could be a route for achieving the democratic change we all desire.


For more information and to register for an Assembly, go to

For openDemocracy's series calling for a constitutional convention around the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, The Great Charter Convention, see here.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


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