Published on July 13, 2012

They mustn’t walk alone (but they’ll try)

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is the Director of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

boy walking, head down, aloneNew research suggests that the UK needs a new constitution. However, recent rancorous exchanges around Lords reform proves that politicians won’t be able to write one alone. Only the genuine, deep, involvement of the public will help to break the deadlock.

Democratic Audit* has published its fourth comprehensive Audit of UK democracy. The Audit is truly worrying for anyone those of us who think that the health of our democracy is critical to the health of the country.

Democratic Audit finds 150 specific concerns about the quality of democracy in the UK. A staggering 60 of these are new issues which were not identified in the last Audit in 2003. It isn’t all doom and gloom; the Audit also identifies ‘dozens’ of examples of specific democratic improvements. However, the author’s conclusions are clear; “genuine democratic renewal can only arise from a new constitutional settlement for the UK”. A summary of the both positive and negative changes to the UK’s democracy identified by the Audit can be found here.

We have recently seen, in the debate and vote about the future of the House of Lords, how challenging constitutional reform is. House of Lords is only one of a number of big constitutional issues. One could conclude therefore that, although reform is needed, the magnitude of the task is too much; the political energy and capital required to achieve it should really be deployed elsewhere.

Writing from Liverpool University (just trying to make the title of this post obvious), the Director of Democratic Audit, Stuart Wilks-Hegg, paints a bleak picture for our democracy. Drawing on the over 300,000 words that make up the Audit, Wilks-Heeg paints a picture of an increasingly unstable constitution where there is disagreement between parties and other actors over some pretty fundamental constitutional foundations. In the end, Wilks-Heeg says, the “underlying tensions between different democratic models have yet to be resolved”.

The slightly terrifying conclusion that I draw from this is that, although constitutional reform will require considerable political energy, the size of the problem is large enough to warrant its expenditure.

Assuming you accept his analysis, the question then is what to do in order to go about resolving these tensions and building some consensus about the model for the renewal of UK democracy. Looking at the rancour within and between parties about Lords reform, I don’t believe this can be solved by our politicians alone.

Although elected politicians are one embodiment of our democracy, they are not the only guardians. Indeed it’s not even clear that the public would trust them to put aside their own self-interest to do the job properly, particularly since the expenses scandal. A recent call for a Constitutional Assembly to be made up of various groups including elected representatives, faith groups and business leaders might go some of the way. However, I think that the diagnosis by Wilks-Heeg suggests that this won’t be enough. I fear that an Assembly of this kind will still be seen as a stitch-up by the elite. I believe that we need to find a way to hold a deeper kind of conversation directly with and between citizens.

As Annie Quick highlighted here, holding a referendum on whether or not to switch our voting system to AV was a disaster, any form of direct democracy on wider constitutional reform would be worse. There are other ways, and the approach taken by British Colombia (pdf) to reform its broken voting system points to one way. However, involving citizens in this way isn’t easy. It requires considerable political courage and a willingness to put country before party.

Given Wilks-Heeg’s analysis I’m not sure that the lead will come from Westminster. I’m trying to end this post on a positive note. Trouble is I’m not sure that democracy reform is a viable mass public campaign. It isn’t clear to me, therefore, how we ensure that the public’s voice is injected into the constitutional debate. Maybe we need to wait for things to get much worse, for our democracy to get even more run down, before our politicians realise what is obvious to people outside Westminster, that they can’t walk the constitutional reform path alone.

Photo Credit: Hajen

*Disclosure: I chair Democratic Audit

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