In this long-read article, Involve trustee Julie Mellor and Kennedy School of Government Graduate Student Adam Hawksbee make the case for how radical democratic governance could help overcome the divisions in our politics and society.
Our current political moment is characterised by division
It has almost become a cliché to highlight how divided British society is. Barely a week goes by without hearing another set of names for the tribes dominating politics in Western liberal democracies, and a cottage industry of books has arisen which addresses their growth and impact. The Economist famously argued that the new political divide was not between left and right but between ‘open’ and ‘closed’.1 David Goodhart argued that these groups are better thought of as ‘Somewhere’ and ‘Nowhere’ people, drawing focus to the role of place and identity in each group.2 Danny Finkelstein has stylised each group as comprising a different country, exposed by the Brexit referendum: ‘Leavia’ and ‘Remainia’.3 Polling firm Britain Thinks described these groups as the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, and found that the word both sides associate most with modern Britain is, predictably, ‘divided’.4
These divisions are real, deeply- embedded and manifest in alarming ways
In a prescient analysis, Robert Reich wrote 25 years ago of the risk of divisions created by the decline of the nation-state in a globalized economy. He warned that the global mobility of capital would create a divergence between two groups: ‘routine producers and in person-servers’ and ‘symbolic analysts’. This would then cause a polarization of political platforms toward ‘zero-sum nationalism’ on the one side and ‘laissez-faire cosmopolitanism’ on the other.5 It’s easy to recognise the divergence of economic realities prophesied by Reich in the modern British economy, summarised by Andy Haldane in his aptly titled speech on Britain post-recession: ‘Whose recovery?’.6
While Reich got so much right in his analysis, one thing he missed is the way politics would be further captured by elites over the past few decades. In the UK, we have seen the predicted divergence in economic realities, but for a time political platforms remained relatively unchanged. Tony Blair, David Cameron, and Nick Clegg embodied cosmopolitan liberalism. In a recent analysis, the economist Thomas Piketty offers his explanation for this phenomenon. He examined the structure of electoral politics in France, the US, and Britain, focussing on the way in which different elites - defined by either education, income, or wealth - have voted. The trend over the past few decades is stark - the educated elite moved their support to the political left while the elite defined by income and wealth stayed on the right.
we need to find new ways to engage citizens in the decisions that affect their futures
Piketty describes the resulting situation as ‘the Brahmin Left vs the Merchant Right’, in which parties cater to their elite supporters who hold more power. This elite-capture then creates a lack of representation for much of the public and opens the door to the frustrations that cause populism. In Britain, this analysis explains why party politics continued essentially as normal post-recession until the Brexit vote laid bare overwhelming frustrations with the status quo. In an open letter to Conservative donors, Dominic Cummings, the architect of the Vote Leave campaign, argued that we are approaching the moment where the public decides that ‘drastic action will be needed including the creation of new forces to reflect public contempt for both the main parties and desire for a political force that reflects public priorities.’7
Reich shows us that we are in the middle of an unprecedented shift in the socioeconomic structure of our nation, and Piketty indicates that our political system has in the same period become particularly ill-suited to reflect this change. Into this void come populist candidates like Donald Trump and Marine le Pen, who cater directly to those individuals left behind by economic and cultural shifts. To fill this gap, and restore hope and possibility to British politics, we need to find new ways to engage citizens in the decisions that affect their futures.
In addressing division, we need to shift our focus from "what" to "how"
Thinking across the political spectrum is currently focussing on the policy package that could address divisions, with Universal Basic Income becoming emblematic of the sort of ‘radical’ policy to address the challenges of a modern, automated, economy. Yet bold policies require sacrifice, risk, and insecurity for citizens. Being willing to take risks and make sacrifices requires trust, both of other citizens and political leaders. And our political system has, justifiably, lost the public’s trust.
Radical governance is an enabler of radical government.
Our challenge should be reframed from ‘what policies can we introduce to address divisions?’ to ‘how can we make collective decisions so that we find and harness shared interests’ and, potentially more important, ‘how can we identify and reinforce shared values that strengthen communal ties and make constituencies more resilient to the uncertainty caused by change?’.
Creating a more resilient and prosperous UK will involve sacrifice and unsettling shifts in power, not just among economic groups but in terms of gender, geography, generation, and race. Radical governance is an enabler of radical government.
A radical form of governance is first about a new mindset…
Political leaders who want to fundamentally transform our political culture, either at a local or national level, firstly need to adopt a new mindset that is equal parts humility and boldness.
Humility - to recognise that there is no way they can approximate the values and opinions of the public based on the tools currently at their disposal. The challenges we are facing are new and unprecedented, and the current mechanisms for aggregating information are insufficient. Social media may provide new avenues for engagement, but also fosters an echo chamber which amplifies those that agree and ridicules those who don’t. Our news media is less polarizing than others, notably the US, but focuses on personalities and short-term sensationalism, with coverage post-Brexit dominated by leadership contests and ministerial resignations.8 Traditional town halls and consultations primarily reflect the opinions of the most vocal, who are more likely to represent special interests. Political leaders should admit what they don’t know, and commit to finding out.
Boldness - to open what Charles Clarke has called the ‘too-difficult’ box; the group of controversial policy questions that successive governments have ducked.9 How do we fund social care? What should government do in relation to declining industries that were a central part of communities? What steps do we need to take to address climate change? Leadership means engaging in these discussions and investing energy in understanding the perspectives that members of the public bring.
… and second about new tools and approaches
Political leaders need the ability to better understand the preferences and values of a broad section of the public, and moreover identify how those preferences and values trade off against one another when applied to a policy area. Elections, MP’s inboxes, town hall meetings, written consultation exercises, social media, newspaper letter pages, and opinion polls do not meet these two requirements. We need to think creatively about a more sophisticated range of tools.
Radical governance at its core means unlocking the communal capacities that exist in citizens but are currently constrained by outdated and unfit political approaches.
There is growing global interest in ‘mini-publics’ (forums for informed deliberation by randomly-selected citizens that report to elected representatives) and particular progress has been made by organisations like Mass LBP in Canada and newDemocracy in Australia.10 Leo Varadkr has also built on the work of the Irish Constitutional Convention and embedded citizen deliberation in the office of the Taoiseach.11 In the context of deep divisions in the UK, there are three elements of ‘mini-publics’ like Citizens Juries and Citizens Assemblies that are important to highlight:
1) Convening power
A core requirement of these forums is that members are selected at random and stratified to be broadly representative of the public. This means they bring together individuals that don’t usually interact, and often profoundly mistrust one another due to a lack of mutual understanding. While these forums have limited numbers, participants often act as champions in their communities after the events, causing a ripple effect. In this sense, the more regular convening of randomly selected citizens in an area serves as an institutional response to the decline of public spaces that would have traditionally facilitated community interaction. In ‘How Democracies Die’, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that one of the key values of a successful democracy is ‘mutual toleration’, the idea that we accept each other’s views as legitimate even if we disagree.12 Mutual toleration relies on mutual understanding, for which Citizens' Juries can serve as a catalyst.
2) Informational power
Another core element of these forums is two-way education: decision-makers inform participants about context, and participants inform decision-makers about the experience and values they bring to core trade-offs.
Key to making robust decisions in complex situations, for both sides, is having access to a wide range of facts, expertise, and experiences. Clearly, this is not possible for the majority of people, the majority of the time. And yet, traditional methods of public engagement like written consultations or town halls rely on members of the public to do their own research, and political decision-makers to rely on the data they have at hand.
When each side has access to different sets of information, curated and understood through a particular lens, discussion is more likely to entrench division. Citizens' Juries break these informational feedback loops. Jim Fishkin has found that even deliberation over the space of a weekend can see individuals develop their views following education and discussion.13 And the Citizens' Assembly on Social Care commissioned by two Parliamentary Select Committees show that meaningful education of the public can occur even on complex topics - the resulting Joint Committee report supported many of the conclusions borne from 4 days of public deliberation.14
3) Consensual power
Citizens' Juries are often lazily compared to focus groups. The key and crucial difference lies in processes of consensus, achieved through deliberation. Deliberative forums are a process, not a pulse-check - an institutional framework is provided for the experience, and then decision-makers listen actively to identify the precise moments at which previously divided participants agree, or at the very least recognise the legitimacy of each other’s opinions. The recommendations these forums provide then inform bolder and more resilient policies, based on a sustainable consensus rather than fragile compromises.
This new approach to democratic governance could be key in our current political moment. Forging paths ahead in a context of division demands approaches that can identify unexpected alliances between previously deadlocked groups. Even when these forums can’t produce full consensus, they offer the opportunity to identify the most important issues for different social groups. As one participant in the Citizens' Assembly on Social Care commented: ‘It gives government a good view of what the general population think and are willing to sacrifice to come up with a solution.’15 Understanding what is sacred, and what can be compromised, only comes from sustained and meaningful conversation that embraces trade-offs.
In finding a path through deep divisions, citizens are a politician’s most valuable and overlooked resource.
The power of deliberative forums is clear when contrasting them to isolated referendums. In terms of convening power, the practices of campaigns on both sides of referendums use social media, direct mail, and targeted messaging to speak directly to individuals that are already persuaded or likely to be moved, as opposed to fostering discussion between groups. Informational power is extremely limited, with experts viewed through the prism of being on a particular side, and individuals being expected to educate themselves without time to learn and discuss. Consensual power is wholly lacking - referendums are designed to translate a complex set of values and preferences into binary opposition.
Radical democratic governance looks fundamentally different to our current politics
There are important innovations underway in British politics that reflect an understanding that things need to change. The Government’s Civil Society Strategy introduces an Innovation in Democracy programme, piloting approaches where ‘people are empowered to deliberate and participate in the public decisions that affect their communities’.16 In response to the RSA’s Citizens Economic Council, the Bank of England recently introduced regional citizens' councils to establish ‘a two-way dialogue and collaboration between the Bank and a panel of citizen representatives on the economy, financial system and policy, as a means of enhancing the understanding of both parties.’17 What Works Scotland have pioneered the use of mini-publics for police-community engagement.18
These and other institutional innovations can be an important piece of a broader radical approach to democratic governance. However, unless we see systemic change then these new approaches will remain as a ‘nice-to-do’ by isolated actors as opposed to a new political paradigm. Eventually, as recommended by the UCL Constitution Unit, the policy process should have citizen involvement integrated throughout - from early Assemblies on principles, to parliamentary debate, to legislative proposals from governments, to national polls.19 This will require a range of enabling legislation and policy, before we see a new suite of applications of citizen deliberation and advice to politicians:
Early applications of deliberative methods need to be highly visible so that the public notice the change and grow confident that the values and motivations they apply to complex issues will be understood and used to inform policy design. Politicians can also gain confidence that the principles or criteria for policy design produced by public deliberative processes enhances their ability to make challenging decisions. Understanding and trust of these methods by the public, politicians, and the media would also be accelerated by a national, symbolic application - possibly in the form of a UK Citizens' Assembly.
The above set of ideas are, of course, ‘top-down’ - they focus on what individuals in positions of power can do to reform institutions to facilitate robust and bold decision making in a context of deep division. What is missing from this picture, and will be essential, is the ‘bottom-up’ work - a process of comprehensive civic re-engagement, built on traditions of community organizing and facilitated by an education system that promotes creativity and critical thinking. These two forces are inseparable and mutually-reinforcing, and political leaders who change structures and institutions will equally need to equip citizens and communities to take full advantage of the new opportunities they present. Eventually, these two forces should meet in the middle, where the devolution of formal powers down to localities and the re-engagement of marginalized communities leads to the exercise of power by a different set of faces, bringing new sets of perspectives and approaches.
Radical democratic governance also feels fundamentally different
While the exact institutional form of a future radical democratic governance might be unclear, what is potentially clearer is what this new world should feel like.
Shifting ‘us and them’ to ‘we’ - facilitated by sustained and routine interactions on issues of substance between groups who are predisposed to disagree by different economic and cultural contexts.
Beyond indecision and U-turns- as politicians invest time up-front in understanding the values and risks at play in the most complex and controversial policy areas.
From muddling through to striving forward- implementing future-facing policy agendas that reflect the insights and values of informed citizens.
Harnessing the capacities of citizens
In Rights of Man, Thomas Paine argued that ‘there is existing in man, a mass of sense lying in a dormant state, and which, unless something excites it to action, will descend with him, in that condition, to the grave. As it is to the advantage of society that the whole of its faculties should be employed, the construction of government ought to be such as to bring forward, by a quiet and regular operation.’21
Radical governance at its core means unlocking the communal capacities that exist in citizens but are currently constrained by outdated and unfit political approaches. In finding a path through deep divisions, citizens are a politician’s most valuable and overlooked resource.
Julie Mellor is Chair of Demos, the Young Foundation and the Federation of Sector Skills and Standards. She is also a Trustee of Involve, the UK’s leading public participation charity.
Adam Hawksbee is a Graduate Student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a Research Assistant at the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative.
Both are writing in a personal capacity, and these views do not necessarily represent the organisations they are affiliated with.
- 1. The Economist, ‘Drawbridges up’ (July 2016)
- 2. David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics(2017)
- 3. Daniel Finkelstein, ‘Killer flaw at the heart of Brexit campaign’, The Times (June 2016)
- 4. Britain Thinks, Brexit and Beyond: From Divided Britain to One Nation? (September 2016)
- 5. Robert Reich, The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism (1992)
- 6. Andy Haldane, Speech: Whose Recovery? (2016)
- 7. Dominic Cummings, ‘On the referendum #25’ (May 2018)
- 8. Antonis Kalogeropoulos & Richard Fletcher, ‘In the US, the left trusts the mainstream media more than the right, and the gap is growing’, Nieman Lab (June 2018)
- 9. Charles Clarke, The 'Too Difficult' Box: The Big Issues Politicians Can't Crack(2014)
- 10. Mass LBP, ‘Black Deck’ (2013)
- 11. Lyn Carson, ‘Integrating Citizen Deliberation Into National Decisions: Ireland’s Prime Minister’s Office’, newDemocracy (May 2017)
- 12. Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (2018)
- 13. James Fishkin, When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation (2011)
- 14. Involve and House of Commons, ‘Citizens’ Assembly On Social Care: Recommendations For Funding Adult Social Care’ (2018)
- 15. Ibid, p24
- 16. UK Government, Civil Society Strategy: Building A Future That Works For Everyone (August 2018)
- 17. Andy Haldane, Speech: Climbing the Public Engagement Ladder (March 2018)
- 18. http://whatworksscotland.ac.uk/
- 19. Meg Russell and Andy Renwick , ‘PACAC Oral evidence: Independent Commission on Referendums’ (July 2018)
- 20. International Association for Public Participation, ‘ IAP2 Spectrum’
- 21. Thomas Paine, ‘Rights of Man’ (1792)