Social Movements and Political Rights

The POWER 2010 campaign has launched a vital debate on the ways and means of reforming British democracy. One proposal which caught my eye is for the House of Lords to be turned into a “chamber of sectors” .
Jon Bright
29 January 2010

The POWER 2010 campaign has launched a vital debate on the ways and means of reforming British democracy. One proposal which caught my eye is for the House of Lords to be turned into a “chamber of sectors” . The Lords would become an elected chamber, but constituencies would not be arranged geographically as they are with the House of Commons. Instead they would be arranged by ‘sector', representing different groups or sections of society. Examples of different sectors might include Education, Health, Industry, Transport, Environment. Or it could include people from the voluntary sector; from charities and NGOs.

The growth of social movements such as charities and NGOS has been one of the defining features of modern politics. They have a long history, but today more than ever they are present in every sector of politics. NGOs such as Greenpeace and Amnesty have built strong international brands, and are capable of organising their many supporters quickly and effectively in support of specific causes. And not every social movement is organised around an NGO. Facebook has already proved its ability to quickly organised campaigns both serious and frivolous – though what is remarkable about them is the speed at which their energy both collects and then dissipates.

One of the things I found interesting when reading OK was that discussions with many of these social movements quickly turned constitutional. They were interested in how power is structured in our society because at the moment it effectively keeps them out. There are many ways social movements have an influence on politics, but at the moment they are all informal: organisation of media campaigns which raise awareness or generate negative publicity; advocacy meetings with politicians and businessmen; organisation and then presentation of petitions, etc.

These things undoubtedly have an impact – but it is sporadic, unpredictable, depending as much on the political climate and the finesse with which they are presented, as the level of support they generate. A second chamber based on sectors (however they are formed), or other proposals such as citizens initiatives, would change that.

They would give mass social movements direct participation in democracy – some kind of direct powers to influence events. They would be the equivalent of giving rights not to the individual but to collectives. The ability to organise groups of people around single issues would translate into direct influence on power. Would this be a good thing? On the one hand, it would be a breath of fresh air for campaigners around the country. People who join social movements could join in the confidence that they will make a difference, if enough people are converted to the cause.

The idea of being able to participate in a collective politics which is at the same time not organised through one of the main parties certainly appeals to me. However, I can see potential downsides. There are millions of people in the country who lack the time or resources to organise in this way. They would be kept silent. Furthermore, Britain is used to a political culture where the majority rules and where the individual is the organising unit of society. The idea of large but nevertheless minoritarian social movements (who may well be in some sense international) gaining genuine leverage on issues is clearly controversial and might not be welcomed by some. I am undecided on the issue.

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