Will we (ever) get the future we deserve?

This was originally written in the days of light (2012): pre-Brexit, pre-Corbyn, pre-Trump...  I considered updating it but, whilst some of it now feels stupendously naive, some of it is weirdly prescient and some of it still feels hideously accurate, so I thought I'd leave it exactly as I found it.

Sometime in the late 1990s, when ‘social inclusion’ was the buzz phrase of the hour, I found myself attending a ‘community conference’, held in a marquee in the grounds of a local church.  The conference had been organised by community activists to bring ‘professionals’ – that is, regeneration specialists, people from the council, consultants, academics, people with money from central government and so on – together with ‘real people’  - that is, people who actually lived and worked in the neighbourhood.  The idea of the conference was to have a conversation about what the ‘real’ people wanted from a recently awarded regeneration grant (quite a big one), and how the ‘professionals’ could help them get it.

Like any professionals, of course, the professionals at this particular conference (including me) arrived with their professional baggage: their methodologies and their jargon and their assumptions.  Key amongst these assumptions was an important tenet of the ‘social inclusion’ agenda: namely, that ‘local people’ needed to be enabled and encouraged to participate in local democratic processes so that their views and wishes could be properly reflected in what local service providers actually did.  Such a notion, from our progressive professional point of view, made huge sense: unless ‘we’ knew what people wanted, how could we provide it?

For a few hours we navigated the workshops and breakout groups that are the standard fare of such events, listening as hard as we could and gently guiding delegates towards the notion that if they ‘got involved’ – if they turned up to meetings, if they formed neighbourhood associations, if they expressed their opinions - then the regeneration funding that was available would be more likely to be spent in ways that would help improve their neighbourhood and, hopefully, their lives.

Our bubble was burst shortly before lunch when, in the plenary session at the end of the morning, an exasperated woman stood up and said: Why should I have to do all this?  The people of Moseley [a slightly more prosperous, adjoining neighbourhood] don’t have to do all this.  They have clean streets and nice schools and their rubbish gets collected; that’s all I want.  Why should I – why should we, just because we’re poor – have to do anything different from them?  I just want the same as everyone else.


This question remains as valid today as it did then; and it applies even more so when we consider what sort of political mechanisms we might need in order to deliver genuine sustainability.

In responding to the question, a useful starting point is to draw a distinction between ‘representative democracy’, on the one hand, and ‘participative democracy’ or ‘deliberative democracy’ on the other.  Representative democracy is the one we’ve got, and the one we’ve got used to: we ‘the people’ are allowed to cast our vote from time to time, by which means we appoint someone – an MP, a Mayor – to represent us.  At the time of the vote, candidates make a variety of promises or pledges about what they’re going to do or how they’re going to behave whilst they are representing us, and if in a few years’ time we are happy we can vote for them again, and if not we can vote for somebody else.

This is actually quite an efficient way of doing things; rather than everybody having to be involved in every decision (which would be ridiculously time-consuming and boring) we the people effectively appoint some others to do this hard work for us.  I don’t particularly want – for example – to spend hours and hours trying to understand what the best way of collecting and processing my household waste is, or how to ensure that the air I and my children breathe is clean enough: I want simply to know that someone is dealing with it for me; and that if I think they’re doing a crap job, I can vote to get rid of them.

Such a system is also reasonably ‘open’ in that, if you choose, you can get involved: you can attend council meetings, you can write letters, you can join a political party and seek to shape the policies that the party has from the inside, or you can join pressure groups or special interest groups that seek to influence policies from the outside.  You can even vote if you want to.

In many respects, this system served us well for decades, perhaps even centuries; but, in both London and the UK more generally, it seems to be working less and less well.  Membership of political parties has been in precipitous decline for many years; turnout in elections (including, notably, the recent comic-book Mayoral election) is sometimes alarmingly low; and trust in politicians and the political process – never high at the best of times – is in perilously short supply.

Perhaps, in one sense, this doesn’t matter.  The system is, after all, ‘open’ – you can get involved if you want to, nothing’s stopping you – so low participation and engagement merely signals passive assent.   If and when ‘we the people’ have had enough, we can simply assert ourselves.

There are three big reasons for disputing this benign view.

The first might be termed ‘incrementalism’.  This is the process by which small steps, each individually insignificant, progressively build into something bigger, and one day we wake up and find that the open-ness we had presumed is no longer there.  A process of co-evolution occurs, whereby each part of the system progressively adapts to changes elsewhere in the system, and slow-moving vicious circles develop: as fewer people join political parties, for example, because they have a reduced sense of belonging to the social class that that party represents, or because they have less belief that participation in a political party can help them achieve their aims, those parties inevitably become less representative of those people, thus fuelling the process whereby people feel disconnected.  After a time – and that time would appear to have arrived for large numbers of Londoners – there seems little point in ‘engaging’: there may be no formal barriers to my participation, but I see little evidence of it being worth my while, so what’s the point?

The second reason for anxiety flows directly from this, and is the fact that the decline in more general engagement or participation leaves an ever smaller, and more idiosyncratic, rump of those that are engaged.  The kinds of people who still join political parties, who seek to become councillors, who try to become MPs and so forth, are an ever weirder subset of the general population.  With each passing year they become less and less like ‘the rest of us’. 

And the problem with that is two-fold: on the one hand, they become less and less likely to really ‘get’ what life is like for everyone else, and are therefore less likely to make decisions that truly represent our interests; and, on the other, they become more and more open to influence by the professionalised machinery around them.  If you’d spent all your adult life surrounded by other political activists, by researchers and think tanks, by journalists and smooth-talking lobbyists representing powerful corporate interests, you too might end up behaving strangely in City Hall or the House of Commons.

Which gets us to the third reason for disputing the benign view, and the one which speaks most directly to the challenges of sustainability. 

The challenges we face going forward – of climate change, of excessive consumption, of material depletion and habitat destruction – are sometimes called ‘wicked’ problems: they are highly complex, and there are no clear answers.  Most especially, the solutions will involve everyone.  These are not the kind of problems that a suitably empowered government can just ‘fix’.  No top down policy, from either City Hall or Westminster, is going to be able to sort these kinds of problems out.  Rather, everyone is implicated: government will have to change, business will have to change, individual lifestyles will have to change.

And for that sort of thing to happen, all the various ‘stakeholders’ are going to need to discuss, to negotiate, to reflect on the options, to between them work out what’s possible and what’s not, what’s fair and what’s unfair.

At the moment, we as a society seem incapable of having such a discussion.  The shrill venality of the mainstream media no doubt contributes to the problem, but the lack of a mature democratic process in which the citizenry can hear, consider, reflect and choose is in large part the responsibility of the political classes themselves.  Yes, we know that front of mind and front of door issues loom large: we can’t ignore the woman who wants the streets cleaned and the rubbish collected and the police to come by her house often enough to make her feel safe.

But we are entitled, too, to a proper grown up discussion about what might really happen if the earth’s temperature increases by 2oC or 3oC in the next thirty years, and how we might actually wean ourselves off our consumerist addictions, or what kind of money and jobs we can really expect to have in an economy that is perpetually changing and evolving but which isn’t necessarily always getting ‘bigger’.

Which leads us towards the notions of ‘participative democracy’ and ‘deliberative democracy’.  Though distinct approaches – the former stresses techniques for ensuring that citizens are actively and directly engaged in political decision-making processes; the latter stresses that inclusive processes of debate and discussion should be an obligatory part of the decision-making process – both challenge the notion that we the people should simply hand over responsibility to our representatives.  Deliberative democracy, in particular, seems well suited for the ‘wicked problems’ we increasingly face; and extensive academic and practical testing consistently demonstrates two powerful things:

  • firstly, that the general public are more than capable of engaging with the complications, ambiguities and trade-offs of  complex (political) problems, given enough time, space and support

  • and, secondly, that the initial or ‘knee jerk’ reactions that can come from focus groups and surveys (techniques extensively used by politicians and political parties to test their policy ideas, given that they can no longer rely on their membership as ‘representative’) can often bear little relationship to the kinds of views people formulate and express once they’ve been given the opportunity to really deliberate over something

It is true that deliberative processes are time-consuming, and can be expensive, and can often reveal awkward or uncomfortable truths; but the opportunities provided by modern communications technology are beginning to transform the practicalities of the approach.  The concept of ‘liquid democracy’, for example, has emerged from within the ICT world, but offers far broader applications and has already had a significant effect on mainstream politics in Germany.  By combining elements of deliberation and representation, it seems to offer a hybrid form of democracy that may well be suited to the twenty first century.

If it is indeed the case that the challenges of sustainability – of climate change, of social justice, of individual and collective well-being, of physical and psychological health – are ‘wicked problems’; and if meeting these challenges requires society as a whole to work out and through the solutions; then it seems hard to believe that the traditional model, in which we appoint some representatives on a short term basis, who compete for our vote by shouting about the kinds of short term issues that they think will work well as media sound-bites, is fit for purpose.  We need something smarter, more inclusive, more grown up, more thoughtful.

What if, rather than waiting for the same old faces to present us, in four years’ time, with their best guess package of what they think we want, we Londoners, instead, inverted the entire process.  What if we used the internet to have a really thorough deliberative discussion about what kind of London we want, what kind of lifestyles we want to lead, and we use that deliberative discussion to draw up a list of important issues, and a set of possible solutions, and a sort of manifesto of policy options? And we could then vote on the policies, and invite people to deliver them.

It would probably scare the politicians.  But would it be more sustainable?  And would the lady in the marquee be any happier?


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