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.