Published on November 28, 2014

Democratic reform: 10 years, any change?

People & participation

By Sarah Allan

Sarah Allan is Head of Engagement at Involve. She splits her time between the development and delivery of participation projects, and leading Involve's external affairs team. Sarah has long believed in the need to transform how UK decision-making works.

I joined Involve on Monday this week to lead their work on democratic reform. And in so doing I came full circle, back to the subject matter of my very first full-time job.

But to start even longer ago, my interest in democratic reform began when I was in sixth form.  It was general election year and one of my classmates announced that she was going to vote Conservative because she felt “her parents didn’t get enough [welfare] benefits under Labour”. For her, the parties didn’t have any ideological background. If one wasn’t performing as you wanted, you voted for the other one.

I quickly discovered that very few of my peers knew, even in vague terms, what left-wing and right-wing meant. I also realised that the fact that I did was entirely because of the political discussions I’d had with family at home. We’d never talked about politics in school, either in lessons or outside of them.

My subsequent interest in citizenship and political education quickly expanded to include support for electoral reform (when I realised that it didn’t really matter how my classmate voted anyway because we lived in one of the UK’s safest seats). And from there to wider democratic issues. My first full-time job was as a researcher at The Power Inquiry, an investigation into the health of UK democracy.

Returning earlier this year to work solely in the democratic reform sector after nearly a decade has been fascinating. There have been changes or, at least, shifts. A wider range of NGOs and civil society organisations are concerned about democracy, and deliberative practice is more widespread and advanced. Talking about a two-party system has, at least for the time-being, become a nonsense. The Scottish public’s expectations of the political system may have altered for many years to come, and so on. More formal change has also occurred; further devolution to nations and regions is either guaranteed or more likely; TTIP raises different but equally important questions.

For all this, however, it is the areas that are the same that are more immediately striking. Westminster works in much the same way, is dogged by many of the same problems, and the gap between the majority of the population and the political system is the same or bigger. Partisanship still usually rules over common sense when it comes to constitutional reform.

Debates about democratic reform are often similar too. And I want to end this blog post by pulling out one similarity in particular – the conflation by some of the traditional constitutional reform agenda on the one hand, and steps to bridge the gap between citizens and the political system on the other. This is not to say that making voting easier, having a House of Commons that looks more like the UK population and so on won’t make the system more attractive; I also believe these changes to be important, in the latter case very. But a focus on these issues often starts with a theoretical vision of what a good democracy looks like and a top-down assessment of the change that needs to happen.

In contrast, efforts to re-engage citizens with the political system need to start with where people are at and a reassessment of how they might want to engage. Issues, localities and different levels of engagement spring immediately to mind.

My initial inclination is that I see Involve’s work on democratic reform starting very much from the point of view of the citizen. A final call on this is just one of the key decisions I need to make, with the input of colleagues and others, as I shape Involve’s democratic reform work.


Feature picture: Keith, Creative Commons, see the picture on flickr

7 Responses to “Democratic reform: 10 years, any change?”

  1. December 16, 2014 at 6:01 pm

    It is quite hope inspiring to read your words Sarah. I’ve long wrestled with the concepts and values related to democracy, equality, inclusiveness, fairness, justice, community and those many others. It is nice to read the honestly put views of a professional in this field, and find it expressing sentiments I can feel warm and agreeing towards.

    Defining what form, systems and procedures a democratic system will be is the wrong way around I feel. The process of achieving a free life in democratic nation begins, flows and changes with the people, and further will be a dynamic and evolving process that never ends. As those of us who talk about those things around here say ‘if it ain’t about people, it ain’t about anything’.

    Achieving a progressive democracy, will be started with seeking to create a democratic consciousness in every person of the nation, moving away from the limitations of hierarchical thinking that we are trained to expect from all the structures we grow up with. Before the form of read democracy can be worked out, the people need to experience it. The need to feel the empowerment of being seriously asked their honest views, and the responsibility of seeing that view being taken into account and used to make important decisions.

    A new way of thinking that is in fact the oldest way of thinking may be part of that, simple human to human communication, laying aside barriers and sharing honest thoughts on an issue with no colouring from ideological viewpoints, and even looking for the points of common interest before heading down the more complicated aspect of incorporating the richness of cultural diversity.

    I hope to be able to follow some of your work, and maybe in the future share some views.

    • Sarah Allan
      Sarah Allan
      December 17, 2014 at 12:39 pm

      Thank you Rashid. And please do share your views – I would be interested to hear more of them.

      • Rashid Mhar
        December 18, 2014 at 7:17 pm

        It was nice to be able chat briefly online. If only time allowed for longer discussions but here is a good place to share some thoughts and can be fitted in between tasks.

        My thoughts often drift back to one of the first structures of democracy that we are taught, the four pillars; legislature for deciding laws, executive for implementing laws, judiciary for judging adherence to laws, and freedom of the press to inform and widen the debate about the laws, and expose those who hold seats in three state pillars to independent scrutiny.

        Except now the four pillars would better fit the name the four pillories of democracy. A Parliament for argument and obfustication to defeat evidence and wisdom in deciding the laws, a cabinet and administration to warp policy and justice to the extremes the laws will allow, a judiciary for inquiries who have no power to decide the questions and a media that does it all it can to use the attention of the people to pursue its own agendas.

        A cynical point of view that may seem but again those of us from around here who talk of these matters tend to say ‘cynicism saves time, and true signs for optimism come from those who don’t waste it.’

        For me if I am to take the view that it has all gone wrong, then I should consider where did it go wrong, democracy is a beautiful dream that we would see become fact, and a fact that we would see become a truth. Where a fact is a thing that can be correct for its time and place, and a truth a fact whose time is forever and place is everywhere.

        When the Americans decided to end their ties with Britain, they retained the right to bear arms. Arms or guns in the eyes of modern Britain are a sign of criminality and war, and that message is a fact, not one to be ignored lightly. But the right to bear arms wasn’t conceived on the basis of fear of one’s neighbours, it was a statement to Government, that the people would never surrender their ultimate sovereignty and armed insurrection against the Government and State, should it become necessary, can happen.

        Again even those words with modern eyes and ears sound dangerous, opening the doors to extremism and violence, but the there is a truth beckoning within them. The people holding the government and state to account. People of the past, newly creating democracy, didn’t hold that the power of the vote was the tool to hold account, the power of the vote was the tool to make decisions, the power of the people was the tool to hold government and state to account.

        As I’ve gone along my journey, I’ve learned that identifying all the ways and manifestations of exclusion is a very hard thing to achieve, yet mastering inclusiveness is even harder. Not for any reasons of difficulty or complexity but because of the weight of barriers I have built into myself to survive and continue in circumstances, that far too often fail to meet standards of reasonableness. A key stage in the process, is looking again and again at the power of language, and setting aside things learned, including ideas ranging from cultural relativism to post modernism, getting back to a point of simpler human to human talk and using the gifts biology has provided to reach understanding.

        From that view I have reached a desire to look at all things with fresh eyes. To start seeing if I can disentangle opinion, from facts layered into misinformation, evidence interpreted into misdirection, facts placed in the wrong context or summoned into the wrong time. Those thoughts and processes and some harsh events and unexpected opportunities lead me to what I see as two facts that lead to one truth. Democracy is in the way it is done, it can’t be ideal or ideology it must be a practical implementation; and it can’t be done alone, the closer the process of doing democracy is to an effort of the few the further away from democracy it is. The one truth that may be calling from that, there is only one pillar of democracy, one support, one way of achieving it, supporting it and protecting it, the people must be a democracy wielding people, fully educated in how to use it and fully motivated to use it. Democracy must be a process that creates itself.

  2. December 16, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    Democracy, as the term is usually understood, is the only counter we have to dominance and exploitation by those with the power to enforce them on us. Right now they are doing exactly that.

    Your project is far more than welcome, it is absolutely essential.

    Look forward to helping you in any way possible, for all our sakes.

    Regards, Joe Taylor.

    • Sarah Allan
      Sarah Allan
      December 17, 2014 at 12:39 pm

      Thank you Joe.

      • December 17, 2014 at 5:45 pm

        Would you be able to partake in a series of webinars and internet TV programs about democracy sometime in the new year Sarah?

  3. Peter Evans
    December 17, 2014 at 5:55 pm

    An interesting and encouraging post Sarah, thank you. I’ve long thought it is an absolute nonsense that a nation which supposedly prides itself on being democratic does not even tell its citizens how the system is supposed to work, or even what their role is supposed to be, beyond urging them to put an X in a given box on a particular day. Most people I know think we have a one person one vote proportional representation system for Parliament. You only learn about the systems (and others) from the state if you take Government and Politics at A-level!

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