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Rebuilding democracy for the 21st century


Voting in the 1945 UK general election (Image: Imperial War Museum)

Trust in politics is at an all-time low. We can change that

Social democratic politics is, distinctly, about other forms of collective action than the version led by PLCs. It’s about having the governance and institutions that we decide to have, using a voice that isn’t measured in terms of personal financial muscle or social status. Aside from being fair, our governance should aim to be as participative as is practicable, as wise as we decide to make it, consensual, and robust in defence of liberal secular rational values.

There is an obvious popular expressed frustration with politics. Up until now, we’ve tried to roll with it, and not look it in the eye. But a social democratic movement could decide to meet it, head-on.

Of course the rubbishing of working democratic institutions can be exasperating. Representative democracy is history’s most successful experiment in terms of prosperity, peace and innovation. Being "disenchanted" sounds like the ultimate First World Problem. On the other hand, networked technology, Artificial Intelligence and an appetite for disintermediation are transforming every other comparable profession while politics stands still. This may explain why the voting public are right to be disappointed.

People’s expectations have changed, but our representation has barely adapted. As a result, referendums, petitions and the polarising politics of protest are bridging the gap. Desperate, clumsy masquerades of democracy are being treated as respectable alternatives, and no-one is challenging this.

Here are three sources of popular dissatisfaction that a re-oriented social democratic movement could meet halfway:

  1. We have a political class that monopolise decisions while having less in common with the people that they represent than they could do, and voters are less tolerant of that than they used to be.
  2. Behind the demagogic sneering about "experts", we know that other, more networked, sources of wisdom can make better decisions without the whiff of complacency, groupthink or institutional interests.
  3. The recent referendum has shown how polarising and dishonest bad direct democracy exercises can be, but there are also good forms of participatory design available to us if you want to look for them.

If we choose to face these challenges, it allows us an alternative to the barren traditional constitutionalist obsessions of the liberal left (voting reform, reforming the legislature, etc). Instead, we can concentrate on re-defining representation. The people we put up for election need to have a clearer personal pledge to voters. We need to develop a tougher set of professional ethics that we expect our representatives to stick to, and we also need to challenge political conventions and redefine "the deal" between voters and the people who they elect.

If we do this, we have to stick up for them when their rivals – pressure groups, lobbyists or the media in all of it’s blossoming forms – challenge them.

It doesn’t take much imagination to think through how we can revive a respected version of representation, but the centre-left rarely does it – even in response to the 2009 expenses scandal.

We need to find ways of capturing public sentiment and knowledge, compiling it in ways that are useful, and creating the decision-making processes that people outside of the political beltway can participate in. It may sound far-fetched, but in a world where every other profession is being redefined by connectivity and Artificial Intelligence, political structures haven’t tried to use innovation to perform a democratic role more effectively. All of their investment is in the political arms race – like spending your entire budget on packaging and none on the product.

Being a better democracy is a political objective in itself. It’s time for the social democratic left to spend less time finding policy solutions to "deliver" and instead, to find ways of renewing democracy at all levels of society. Putting people in charge doesn’t need to be an opportunistic slogan.


Paul Evans is a trade union official. He writes in a personal capacity