The problem with politicians and democracy…

"Opening up new forms of political participation to hear the voices of the politically marginalised is critical for the well being of our polity." Interview for the World Forum for Democracy 2016.

Graham Smith Alex Sakalis
10 October 2016


Former prime ministers Sir John Major (left) and Tony Blair share a platform for the Remain campaign event at the University of Ulster in Londonderry. Jeff J Mitchell /Press Association. All rights reserved.

oD: There is a lot of talk about democracy at the local level – what did you find out in Democracy Matters about what citizens in these areas of Britain, north and south, make of the decisions being made in their name? What forms of regional power would be supported by the people who live locally?

Graham Smith (GS): It is striking that in both Assembly North and Assembly South, participants were supportive of the idea of devolution of power, but were not happy about the particular set of structures and powers that were being proposed for their localities.

In both Assemblies we were surprised that citizens preferred an elected assembly: they were concerned about the accountability of the structures being imposed by government (elected mayor with combined authority made up of leaders of local councils). It is assumed that citizens do not support elected assemblies (harking back to the rejection of a North East Assembly in the early days of New Labour), but our experience indicates the opposite.

This may expose a tension between more deliberative processes where citizens have the chance to learn and discuss options in depth, compared to a referendum where citizens do not have this level of information, knowledge and time to reflect.

There were some differences in the judgements of the two assemblies. Assembly North pushed for a larger assembly covering the whole of Yorkshire with more extensive powers (akin to Scotland). Assembly South was supportive of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight area, but prioritised integration of health and social care – an issue that was not included in the negotiated agreement at the time. Citizens’ priorities are not necessarily the same as those of their political representatives. In the end, the government appears to have made a deal with the Solent region, leaving out most of Hampshire, because local political leaders in Solent were willing to accept an elected mayor. Of course, this could all change with the new government. Citizens’ priorities are not necessarily the same as those of their political representatives.

What is clear is that citizens are willing and able to deliberate on complex and contested political issues. The question is whether they will be listened to by local and national political leaders. The evidence is not promising.

oD: Where, if anywhere does this sync with concepts such as George Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ – or are these actually conflicting notions of devolution?

There is a shared agenda of devolving power. The Northern Powerhouse goes much further than devolution to Hampshire, for example, in that it aims to better connect the economies of the large northern cities. Both are primarily driven by concerns around regional economic development rather than democratic renewal.

oD: Given the problems of representative democracy around the world – how important is the ‘mixed model’ of citizens’ assemblies for getting buy-in from citizens and politicians?  Could you explain what that is, and what we learned about it from the contrast between Sheffield and Southampton?

One of the major problems facing citizens’ assemblies and other participatory democratic processes is ensuring that outcomes have an impact on decision-making. Too often politicians either ignore or cherry-pick those recommendations that reinforce their existing views.

As a response to this situation, politicians made up one third of the Irish Constitutional Convention alongside randomly selected citizens: a ‘mixed model’. Politicians would act as an important link between the Convention and final decision-making and would bring significant knowledge of political practice into the deliberations. The evidence on parliamentary buy-in is weak however. Much has been made about the impact of the recommendations of the Convention on same-sex marriage on the successful national referendum in May 2015. But none of the other recommendations of the Convention have had significant impact on political decision-making. The presence of politicians did not generate the systematic political impact hoped for by organizers. The evidence on parliamentary buy-in is weak however.

One of the concerns about the ‘mixed model’ is that politicians are more experienced and confident in political discourse and as such they may dominate the Assembly’s deliberations. There is no systematic evidence on this issue from Ireland, so we decided to test this as part of the Democracy Matters project: Assembly North was the classic citizen-only model; Assembly South was mixed, with a proportion of local politicians alongside citizens. We are still analyzing the data, but we have some interesting early findings.

Citizens in Assembly South liked having politicians present: they were seen as helpful to participants in understanding issues and citizens did not feel that they were overly partisan in their behaviour. Citizens preferred their presence compared to the option of a citizen-only assembly.

That said, there is clear evidence that in the first weekend of the Assembly, politicians were a quite dominant force. We asked citizens whether anyone had dominated discussions or influenced their thinking: in both cases politicians were named.  While domination is obviously problematic, influencing could be seen as a good thing: after all, politicians are experienced and have greater knowledge of politics. This is certainly what the citizens appreciated. But one of the key arguments for citizens’ assemblies is the belief that they come to different sorts of judgments to politicians and experts. While domination is obviously problematic, influencing could be seen as a good thing.

If politicians are shaping the ideas of citizens, either through processes of domination or influence, then the judgments that are likely to emerge will be ones that reflect the perspectives and interests of politicians rather than citizens.

The perception of domination and influence was reduced in the second weekend. This could be put down to the growing confidence of citizens, but also is likely to be related to the lower attendance of politicians in the second weekend. There were less of them about. Ireland has had similar problems ensuring attendance: an indication of the priority that politicians give to meaningful engagement with citizens?

oD: How are we doing with convincing our political class that citizens’ assemblies can be organised effectively in the UK? What impact is the Brexit vote likely to have if any on this narrative? How has Brexit changed our notions of ‘citizen-led’ – or what do you think might be the debates about this in the period to come?

I am not sure how much support there is amongst the political class for such assemblies. Most Conservatives have always been reluctant and sceptical at best. There is still interest in Labour and other parties, but it is not clear what form citizen engagement will take. Citizens’ Assemblies remain only one model on the table. There are other voices more interested in mass mobilisation, that are suspicious of random selection. My sense is that there is little interest amongst the governing class.

Brexit offers a real opportunity for one or more assemblies to consider in depth pertinent constitutional and other issues related to leaving the European Union. But my sense is that there is little interest amongst the governing class.

There is a real danger that the negative perception of the Brexit referendum amongst the majority of the political class (both in terms of the nature of debate and the outcome) will cloud discussions of, and commitment to, all forms of citizen participation. This would be a mistake on two fronts. First, the Brexit referendum was poorly organised – the legal and institutional architecture for referendums in the UK is particularly weak – and it is thus a poor exemplar of direct democracy, let alone other, very different forms of public participation.

Second, if the Brexit result tells us anything, it is that large parts of the population feel alienated from the political process. Opening up new forms of political participation to hear the voices of the politically marginalised is thus critical for the well being of our polity. 

oD: You once wrote for us: “It is a prudent principle of constitutional design that those who are privileged within the current system (and who have strong interests in any alterations to the institutional architecture) should not hold [such] agenda-setting power. In other words, politicians should not have power over a process that could well further advantage their position within the system. (This is also a central argument as to why citizens rather than politicians or their surrogates should participate in a constitutional convention.)”

Would you care to comment on the Brexit referendum in relation to this premise?

I still hold this view strongly. For various reasons, the Brexit referendum was not a good example of how to engage the public in a meaningful way on a complex political issue. This is not just bitter politics because of the result – rather the way that the referendum was conducted. I have written elsewhere about the role that a citizens’ assembly could have played in the process.

oD: Are there any particular projects/ experiments present at WFD2016 that you will be looking out for (we know you have a much more general brief – but still…)

I am a rapporteur for WFD2016 and so do not want to single out any particular project – I want to hear more from the participants. I am always excited about hearing about practical developments. Academics can too easily be divorced from the field.

oD: Is there anything you’d like to flag up in your most recent work?

I am involved in two interesting initiatives at the moment. The Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development that I currently chair continues to shout about the need to think creatively about democratic engagement in response to the contemporary challenges we face, such as climate change. The short-termism that dominates politics means that critical issues around sustainability lack resonance, but are nonetheless vital to our long-term well-being.

And keep an eye on Participedia. In the coming months, we will be launching a much more user friendly and accessible site that will make it easier to learn about democratic innovation across the world. We have some very cool tech people doing great work!

openDemocracy will be at this year's World Forum for Democracy, exploring the relationship between education and democracy with a citizens’ newsroom. Register here.

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