Many people say that it is the political point-scoring of the type one sees when the House of Commons is sitting for Prime Minister’s Question Time or of the type that takes place between political parties at Full Council meetings that entirely puts them off engagement in the democratic process. They are watching a show of adversarialism unfold before them – a flurry of arrows being exchanged, with no opportunity to adjudicate upon the process itself.
This disengagement with conflict sits uneasily with something else that we know – when politics most engages the public and arouses the passions, it is usually when members of the public disagree about what we should do. Where people disagree about what we should do often marks the schism between different competing values, visions and bliefs and the inevitable push-and-pull arising from that is what makes for a stronger democracy. For as long as political power exists, so will conflict – and that is why it is vital for those of us who are serious about public dialogue and engagement in influencing the political process to engage with the question of conflict’s place in a deeper democracy.
Let us draw a comparison between one adversarial system in Britain – the political one, and another – the judicial. Here we have two adversarial systems towards which public perceptions differ enormously; whilst politicians are characterised as self-seeking and underhanded, the judicial system largely escapes such castigation. So conflict itself is not so much the issue – what appears to be the issue in shaping public perceptions of the political system and in turn, disengaging members of the public from politics is the way such conflict is handled and managed. It is worth noting that the adversarial British judicial system, flawed as it may be in many respects, is underpinned by a code of conduct that governs behaviour towards the judicial opponent, the court and the public which all involved in adhere to rigorously, and that there is a strong relationship between the level of respect it commands from members of the public and the rules governing conduct and behaviour within it.
The idea of conflict as fundamental to a deeper democracy is not new. It has its roots in and is implied by what has been dubbed John Stuart Mill’s ‘free marketplace of ideas’ where free speech is posited as vital to a democratic society because of a free exchange of different and competing views from which members of the public ‘choose’.
What is not made explicit, either by Mill, or by commentators on Mill, is that for a free marketplace of ideas to really exist, more needs to be in place than just the expression of those ideas themselves. The reality is that people don’t just make their argument and leave it to sit there upon a stall waiting for others to ‘buy into’ it. The market-seller in our democracy who has the loudest and most powerful voice (and who occupies the most space) is the one who often wins. They make their case, pick apart other people’s arguments, build up evidence bases and lobby for as much as is necessary to articulate their concerns. For Mill’s marketplace of ideas to genuinely exist, all ideas and propositions (competing or otherwise) need to be handled, considered and deliberated upon equally with enough space in the marketplace for all. This is a far cry from the reality of our democratic life where there is little space for the public as a participant and it presents a democratic deficit that needs to be addressed.
Could it be, then, that it is exclusion from this marketplace and an inequality in the ability to amass the resources to make real disagreement vocal and possible which often disengages members of the public from the political system? Might this be a bigger factor than the conflict or the adversarialism in the system itself, explaining why members of the public often say that they would like political alternatives? If that is the case, then public dialogue and public engagement processes play a crucial role in ensuring that positions of conflict and disagreement have a place in influencing public policy-making – even if it is just from the standpoint of ensuring that a specific position has a place on the decision-maker’s options table which is considered in the first place.
The marketplace of ideas analogy also falls short in one other respect. Ideas and political views are not static objects that move around a marketplace – they are propositions to be posited against each other. To agree with one, you have to disagree with another. If I agree with one proposition, it necessarily follows that there is a proposition out there which I disagree with, and someone out there with whom I disagree. Politicians and policy-makers do their job well when they understand it is fundamentally about managing conflict (often with multiple players). They need to be advocates – speak up effectively and skilfully for those propositions they agree with. That means acknowledging there is a position that is disagreed with, and working to persuade others that it is wrong – particularly if those others have views different to theirs.
There is a difference between merely saying something is wrong (having the arrogance to assume that most people will agree), and making the effort to persuade people that something is wrong. Many members of the public suspect that most of what passes for political debate falls into the former category and not the latter (‘shouting’ rather than actual disagreement). Through the latter approach the politician brings not just one person into the engagement process (their political opponent), but also the public through concerted acts of persuasion. Doing so is a mark of respect, not just for the opponent but for the public. It says – ‘I care what you think, what your views are, how you feel about this issue. I am willing to frame the narrative so that it works to persuade you, and I need to know more about you so that I can best do that. You matter – not the proposition I oppose, or the person advocating it, or the points I score when I do that.’ Genuinely engaging with the existence of an opposing view – and therefore – of conflict is for this reason fundamental to real engagement with the public.
Those with an interest in deliberative democracy often place more emphasis on consensus building and collaboration rather than conflict. But I wonder if conflict has a part to play in this too. If we give conflict too much prominence in our democracy, do we stifle consensus and collaboration? Conflict which is handled well need not do so – and indeed, building consensus and using collaboration can be seen as techniques through which a conflict can be resolved. Moving towards consensus and collaboration itself means identifying the negotiables and the non-negotiables – asking where the fundamental disagreements lie is part of the realism behind public dialogue in a democratic society. Discovering the fault-lines of a conflict will also often be precisely what marks up any common ground upon which a consensus can be built.