Opinion: Time to listen to the people

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Last week, the Liberal Democrats unveiled their latest policy paper on UK governance. As a member of the working group that drew up these proposals, I strongly endorse them. The paper covers a broad range of issues, from reforming the Commons itself, committing the party to developing a UK constitution (and spelling out how we’d do it), endorsing the single transferable vote for electoral reform and calling for a fully elected second chamber (no more fudge about predominantly elected chambers).

I do however feel that there is something missing from these proposals. While we are very strong about institutional reform, aside from the establishment of a constitutional convention, we have very little of substance to say about ways in which the public can have a more direct say over policy development. We endorse the establishment of a more formalised and responsive system for petitioning parliament, but both Labour and the Conservatives now endorse that too. We have a vague commitment for more “inclusive and extensive” consultations, but this is lacking in detail. We note the idea of citizens’ juries approvingly, but don’t actually advance our policy in this area since the last similar review back in 2001.

This is a problem because improving representative democracy can only go so far in reconnecting people and politics. Thankfully, the age of deference is now dead and buried – and with it the class-based system of party politics that meant the major parties could depend on the masses turning out in great numbers. But politics – and society more generally – has become more complex. People don’t read manifestos in significant numbers and parties don’t campaign on them. Lowest common denominator issues remain the order of the day in political campaigning and while this emphasis may do much to satisfy most of the people, most of the time, it signally fails to engage or inspire. Major issues – council tax, pensions, Trident, nuclear power, our role in the EU – are carefully sidetracked by the major parties at election time, yet become major topics of concern in the subsequent Parliament.

We can’t blame the electoral system solely for this either. While proportional representation leads to greater diversity in elections, it doesn’t prevent politics from being won on the centre ground. PR might give minority voices representation, but it can’t ensure that government listens to them.

Ultimately, the notion that democracy begins and ends at the polling station every four years should have gone with the death of Queen Victoria. It has contributed to the perception that politicians are all the same and only in it for themselves. Treat voters like infants and they will respond to politicians in a suitably petulant way. The million dollar question is, does this work both ways? If we give voters more responsibility, will they rise to the challenge? Or will they squander such opportunities by indulging in their worst prejudices?

Ultimately, it all depends if you are a “drawbridge up” or a “drawbridge down” person. Speaking personally, I believe that the average person – properly informed – will make responsible decisions. Sadly it is my experience that a lot of people from across the political spectrum think that we desperately need politicians to protect us from the mob.

Yet there are signs of a change in attitude. As I’ve already mentioned, all three main parties now support modernising the Commons’ petitioning system along the lines of the Scottish Parliamentary model. We now have a legal right to demand a parish council or an elected mayor. The Sustainable Communities Bill – now likely to become law thanks in no small way to the Lib Dems’ continued championing of it – will result in an exciting experiment in community-led decision-making.

This week, public participation in policy making has hit the headlines. Firstly, Gordon Brown has initiated a series of “citizens’ juries”. Yet these deliberative meetings look more like Labour’s “Big Conversation” exercise than what I recognise to be a citizens’ jury, which tend to be both smaller and more focussed, with a specific outcome in mind. At the same time, environmental groups have walked away from the government consultation on nuclear power on the basis that the government has clearly already made up its mind. This is the second time the government has consulted on this issue after the first consultation was declared invalid by the courts.

As a party we need a clear answer to why these processes are flawed, and what we would do differently. For the People, By the People does not do this. We also need a clear response to demands for an initiative and referendum system. A number of US States, as well as New Zealand and Switzerland have such a system in place, whereby a referendum must be held on a topic so long as enough citizens call for one.

As a member of the working group I pushed for us to develop policy in this area – indeed I wrote on the subject on Lib Dem Voice – but I struggled to get myself heard.

There are – to be clear – numerous practical issues that must be addressed before any responsible party can endorse such as system, and it was perhaps a little optimistic of me to expect a working group with such a wide and ambitious remit to be able to dedicate sufficient time to this area of policy. It is with this in mind that I am pushing for an amendment to the motion (F33) being debated at conference next Wednesday. The amendment simply proposes adding the following to the end of the motion:

“Furthermore, conference calls on the Federal Policy Committee to prepare a report on the wider issues of improving consultation and direct participation in policy making, including the question of introducing an initiative and referendum system at a local and national level.”

This doesn’t commit the party to adopting any specific policy; it does however commit the party to dedicating time to holding a review on this area. If, like me, you feel that the party needs to develop such policy with a view to ensuring that it remains ahead of the other parties, and that it is time for a rebalance between representative and direct democracy, then please support this amendment both at conference and by joining my new Facebook group.

(If you’re a conference rep, please email me ([email protected]) with your full name, the local party you are a representative of (or LDYS if appropriate) and your membership number by Tuesday 11 September. Thank you).

We can no longer afford to continue with a system in which politics is done to people rather than by people. Participatory democracy has its challenges, and there will always be a central role for representative democracy and political parties. But if these institutions are not to be discredited, they need to learn how to share power.

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10 Comments

  • I fully support the amendment. The best place to develop good Liberal Democrat methods of participation is in local government, especially where we control councils. It’s not just a dream for the future – we have hard evidence in places like Kingston that we can make it work.

  • Benjamin Mathis 11th Sep '07 - 10:51am

    How can you back devolution for England AND an English parliament? Transferring power from the level of 60 million people to 50 million people doesn’t even remotely resemble useful devolution.

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