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Participation is not simply a tool, it is the change we must aspire to

George Gabriel
23 July 2009

True to liberal tradition Real Change is beginning with the people, the only sovereign authority. One thousand house meetings will be held and feed into a People's Convention, where the campaign hopes the future shape of our democracy will emerge as well as the strategy to see it done.

Real Change is one of a number of ambitious new initiatives rising to the challenge of democratic renewal. 38 Degrees, Vote for Change, Unlock Democracy's campaign for a Citizens' Convention and Real Change have all emerged in what Timothy Garton Ash terms a "constitutional moment", a time of deep disillusionment, economic and political collapse. The bedrock of the establishment, its political legitimacy, has been fatally undermined and each of these responses demand a return to the people for its renewal.

Garton Ash believes with popular legitimacy and expert competence the times we live can be shaped and sustained into the "constitutional moment" we need. Yet the authority of expertise has long been the silencer of popular participation: government knows best. Intelligence in Iraq, the spectre of terrorism in SIAC's secret trials, Belmarsh, Forrest Gate, Jean Charles de Menezes, not to mention the experts' false consensus on deregulation of the banks.

This is not the thinking we deserve. Popular participation is not an instrument; it is the heart of democracy and an end in itself. There is a temptation in times like these to seize the public anger and simply sweep the vice and villains from our democratic institutions. This would be no bad thing, but without a deeper shift from representation to participation we will only momentarily plug the leaks in our sinking ship.

Herein lies the rub. The kind of paradigm shift we need to a participatory polity is not the work of weeks; it is a work of movements not moments. Expertise is not inherently authoritarian, only when in a kind hearted act of paternalism it claims authority without consent does it become so. We need a slow moving movement where we teach, where we learn. Where expertise is shared, spread, and consensual popular participation is given the tools to create real change, to drive democratic renewal.

This is the difference between the Save Darfur campaign and older forms of organising like the anti Vietnam War movement, where the "lost youth" was empowered rather than just mobilized. This is the difference between 38 Degrees and London Citizens. People power requires patience, time for knowledge to be shared and relationships to be forged: only if we understand the issues and each other can people come together for positive change.

Do people want to participate? Do they want to learn about Proportional Representation and First Past the Post? Do they want to come together to build a better democracy for Britain? The key is knowing where to start.

MPs claim to be "representing" their constituents when they oppose the right to seek sanctuary from oppression of some of the world's most vulnerable and destitute people. Yet the Independent Asylum Commission knew where to begin and asked ordinary people across the country about their values, and not at first about their policy preference. 65% of people feel it is important that Britain offers sanctuary and feel proud of Britain's tradition of doing so. They also feel it is important that Britain takes only its fair share of such people, and here the IAC found the motor of anti asylum sentiment. Distorted perceptions of how many asylum seekers are accepted, distorted perceptions of how we cater for them - as is apparent in Brown's absurd new policy of "local houses for local people" - are, more often than not, what lies behind hostility.

Movements are built on shared values, the primary motors of mobilization. People know that a voting system should make every vote count, that the accountability of elected representatives must be continuous rather than momentary, that people should be at the heart of politics. From these beginnings expertise can be harnessed, to help popular participation reach its own conclusions about policy allowing people to really take ownership of the change they are to drive.

Garton Ash is a part of Real Change. For this organisation to create real change its commitment to participation must run deep. Its house meetings are a great start, but they must be modest enough to make a new beginning, deep enough to start with values and build up to policy, patient enough to avoid the temptation of the moment. The Real Change we aspire to needs a movement capable of forcing change in the face of narrow interests, and though this is definitely the time to begin it may ultimately require missing "the moment". Such moments of political fluidity are not a dime a dozen, but bowing completely to them turns us from the agents to the subjects of history, a position from which we will not win.

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