Open Democracy: A Genuinely New Politics

By Russell Razzaque / @MindfulRussell


People have lost faith. There was a time when the public were prepared to defer to politicians and accept their ability, indeed right, to make decisions on their behalf, but over the last decade or more, that trust and respect has eroded almost to the point of complete extinction. Promises for a better and fairer society have, instead, given way to inexorable rises in inequality; surpassing levels ever seen in history. The end of boom and bust led, instead, to the biggest economic crash in living memory and, on the international front, whole regions of the world have been destabilised – with populations ravaged – by foreign wars that were conducted on the basis of alleged threats that proved to be wholly illusory.

Across the west we are seeing people seeking out any means they can to break out of a system that is clearly failing them. Whether far right or far left, anything that sits outside the mainstream is being fashioned into a knife to cut us out of the political straight jacket we have been in for so long. Whether it be Trump or Sanders in the U.S., Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Pegida in Germany or the Front National in France, what unites them all is a desire for something different, a new way altogether. And, of course, here in the UK, and in our own Party the election of Jeremy Corbyn is a further manifestation of this desire for root and branch change. The change that is sought is, I believe, not necessarily – or exclusively – for a particular policy prescription, but it is at least as much a yearning for a whole new way or organising our politics. I recall talking to Corbyn’s campaign team during the leadership election, about democratic reform when they told me how much they themselves had been taken aback by the regularity with which such issues came up from the audiences at their rallies.

Small incremental changes will not, I believe, satiate this hunger. The time for small doses of electoral reform is way past. What is needed now is a wholesale shift; moving power from Westminster to the public. Technology today is such that creating a system where the public get a say on key issues and bills, is easily within the realms of possibility. The level of information people have access to also now means that they could be as well informed as any representative sent to parliament on their behalf, at the touch of a button. And the forums for debate that the Internet can create means that genuine dialogue and discussion could take place on any issue, at any time. Making public discourse and voting on issues, a matter of course in our democracy would mean we are really putting our money where our mouth is when we say we want to create a more open and pluralistic politics. Of course, such a shift in decision making would have to be combined with an equivalent shift in responsibility. Anyone wishing to participate in such voting would, for example, need to read briefing documents on the issue at hand and electronically verify this. Such briefing documents, offered as a guide on each issue, could be produced by a Citizen’s Jury who hear evidence from a panel of experts and people with lived experience in the area under consideration. A comprehensive shift like this would trigger a wave of civic participation, and a new mood and seriousness could arise in the country.

Naysayers, of course, will say that the public can’t be trusted – what if they bring back hanging? Isn’t that what opinion polls suggest would happen? Well, we don’t know what opinion would be when a proper debate ensued, and when the people start to take seriously their role in making the decision, and deliberating on it formally. We are seeing some of that at the moment with the ongoing EU Referendum debate. In fact, when ever the public are invited to directly vote on issues, progressive results tend to be the norm. In the 2014 US Congressional election, while the Republicans won a majority in Congress, a swathe of single policy votes across numerous States – covering issues from gay marriage to legalisation of cannabis, to raising the minimum wage – saw the progressive side winning every single time. Indeed, in our own general election last year, polls consistently found the individual policies that Labour were advocating to be very popular, especially more progressive ones like the mansion tax, freezing energy bills and abolishing non-dom status, yet it was the media’s ability to tarnish the messenger – i.e. Ed Miliband and the Labour brand more generally – that prevented any of these progressive and popular ideas ever reaching the statute book. It’s far easier to caricature a personality or even a party than it is to caricature a serious policy, especially when combined with deliberative systems like Citizens’s Juries.

Moving our discourse from personalities to policies is what many in our leadership have, in one form or another, advocated for decades. And if such a shift sounds like too radical or exotic a proposal for self-governance, then we need look no further than the centre of Europe to find an example where exactly this is happening. Switzerland has had a system of direct and open democracy along these lines for decades and they are hardly known for the extreme nature of their politics. Petitions are needed to trigger referendums on any proposed government legislation, and larger petitions can trigger a referendum on any issue of the public’s choosing.

If this kind of radical democratic renewal sat at the heart of Labour’s offering in 2020 then it would not only give the party a genuinely future looking agenda, and make us truly the party of the people once more, it would also be a means of bringing the party together. It is inevitable that much of the parliamentary party will be at odds with the leadership at the time of the election, yet this division could be turned into a positive. If a key plank of the party’s manifesto was to shift power to the people, and make them the ultimate arbiter on any matter they chose to engage in, our perceived weakness would, instead, become a strength. It would be the ultimate manifestation of the new politics; a more adult, informed and truly open debate, where no one was forced into the charade of parroting policies they don’t believe in, in their hearts. This would remove fears of the so called “loony left” coming into power, as the party’s stance on each issue would become the most reasonable of all, “we propose x, and y, and z, but in the final analysis, we will always, as a matter of principle, let the public ultimately decide, issue by issue.”

Jeremy Corbyn brought ordinary people’s lives and stories into Prime Minister’s Questions for the first time, now it is time to take that further, and bring the entire British public into the voting lobbies and change the very nature of our democracy for good.

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