Voice lite: POWER2010 fails to address the real democratic deficit

I've followed the debate that Power 2010's Deliberative Poll two weeks or so ago has generated, although I was not at the meetings myself; and I write as a great admirer of Power's earlier interventions in debates about UK democracy.
Nick Couldry
20 January 2010

I've followed the debate that Power 2010's Deliberative Poll two weeks or so ago has generated, although I was not at the meetings myself; and I write as a great admirer of Power's earlier interventions in debates about UK democracy, for example the Power Report of  March 2006. But I want to reflect on an interesting gulf between the enthusiastic first-hand reports of some (Rosemary Bechler: Open Democracy 12 January; Andreas Whittam-Smith Independent 15 January ) and the acid tone of more informal commentary (for example comments on Stuart Weir's Open Democracy 15 January piece). That gulf should at least make us stop and ask ourselves whether the questions behind the Power 2010 Poll were the right ones.

Leaving aside the question of how exactly the topics subjected to intensive group discussion over one weekend were generated, those topics seem to have been heavily weighted towards issues with the formal political mechanisms. Not surprisingly, the final list of proposals provoked some people's stifled yawns: Britain after all has seen for three decades plenty of half-hearted, ineffectual constitutional debate, very little of which has generated concrete proposals for genuine change.

Meanwhile the real divestment of political power has occurred elsewhere, and without reference to the details of the formal political process: through the increasing dominance of British political culture by a neoliberal agenda which places market values above all other political values. When Andrew Turvey asks, in a response to Stuart Weir, 'if I proposed "tax bankers' bonuses to pay from [?for?] the NHS", would it be ruled out of scope?', he hits the nail on the head and reveals how far the Power 2010 Poll discussions were from real issues of political contention, and how far Power's 'solutions' are likely to be from diagnosing the real pressures that constrain the agenda of UK mainstream politics.

Let's ask: what so far has the Power 2010 Poll showed us, if we are to draw on testimony of witnesses like Bechler or Whittam-Smith? That people enjoy discussing options for political change? That people are pleased to be recognised as capable of such discussion? That, when they are so recognised, people come up with sensible suggestions and sometimes change their mind during the course of debate? I cannot see why we needed an elaborate process of deliberative polling to establish such obvious truths: only elite theories that treat democracy as a necessary illusion dare to suggest otherwise.

How much more productive it would have been if Power had set out to pose a different set of questions? For example: what do people see as the everyday obstacles that prevent their deliberative capacities from being recognised more effectively in the political process? What are the settings where they might actually like to get more involved in discussing the policies being implemented all around them? It would have been interesting to hear from those gathered what are the types of specific policy proposals that they think are important, yet don't hear being given attention within our current political process.

Power's strategy for intervening in the 2010 general election has sidestepped the real deficit in UK democracy. I mean the deficit that in a recent piece I identified as ' the failure of major political actors to develop values that challenge the dominance of market discourse which has gripped politics since the late 1970s'. That is not to say, of course, there is anything wrong with deliberative polling when it is set up to focus on a clear set of policy choices, nor is it to belittle the final proposals that emerged from - or the genuine enthusiasm that no doubt found an outlet - in the sessions Power brought together.

It is to suggest instead that Power's whole exercise was misconceived if it was intended as an attempt to interrupt the failures of UK democracy. Its problem was to assume that we live in a democracy actually disposed to give weight to the full range of public opinion beyond the narrow neoliberal consensus that passes for political debate among our main political parties. If we do not, then the issues for deliberation are rather less abstract than long-term constitutional reform, and more urgent:   namely, to recognise the current failures of our political system to provide genuine political voice, and to begin the identify sources and energies for challenging that system.

But voice lite, you may say, especially in such a sensible and well-mannered form as the Power 2010 Polls, is better than no voice at all. Isn't it good, you might ask, to find first hand evidence of what Stuart Weir calls 'the good sense of the people' (as if it was evidence of that we needed)? Well no, it isn't - not if it distracts us from the real roots of democratic failure.

Nick Couldry is Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. His forthcoming book is Why Voice Matters: Culture and Politics AfterNeoliberalism (Sage June 2010).

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