Democracy Max

The Electoral Reform Society Scotland has published its very interesting report Democracy Max: An Inquiry into the Future of Scottish Democracy. The tone is set with the statement that ‘politics is too important to be left to politicians’. It is reinforced by the broader suggestion that politics is ‘broken’ . The idea is that representative government is flawed. It is not enough to elect politicians to represent us in Parliament. We also need a more direct link between politics, policymaking and ‘the people’. ‘Apathy is a myth’ and people just need the right opportunities to get involved.

This is a familiar refrain in the UK, especially after the MP expenses scandal in 2009. It also has a special place in Scotland. The pursuit of constitutional change is now accompanied by the pursuit of alternative forms of democracy.  It happened before 1997 and it is happening again before 2014. Let’s think about that for a minute: why would we need this debate and reform twice in under twenty years? Why, if we had the debate about politics being broken in the 1990s, do we need to fix it now? The optimistic answer is that no-one fixed Scottish politics – or they just did a patchy job which needs to be re-done (see p.49). The pessimistic answer is that Scottish politics cannot or will not be fixed. Representative government is here to stay, warts and all.

We can explore these possibilities by comparing the ‘new politics’ in the Democracy Max proposals with the ‘new politics’ in the 1990s (as promoted by bodies such as cross-party and ‘civil society’ group, the Scottish Constitutional Convention, SCC  and the Consultative Steering Group, CSG, set up by the UK Government to establish the Scottish Parliament’s standing orders and principles). We can identify: (a) the similarities in tone and substance between the reports; (b) why things are not likely to change despite the hopes expressed in such reports; and/ or (c) what would need to happen to produce greater success second time round.

How do you challenge the role of political parties *and* get their help? The SCC involved parties (primarily Labour, Liberal Democrat and to-be-Green), noting that ‘It is the instinct of political parties to disagree with one another, and the instinct of civic groups like the churches, the trade unions and others to be impatient with the preoccupations of politicians’. One of its stated successes was taking the time to hammer out a deal between parties and groups – an agreement deemed necessary for the success of its proposals in Scotland (although devolution policy was the responsibility of the UK Government).  The ERS makes clear that it is an independent body, not a political party, helping to produce ‘a vision informed by people not politicians’ (pp6-7). The obvious question that arises is: who will turn its vision into reality? The devolution experience suggests that political parties and governments were the gatekeepers to political reform.

Will more venues produce better representatives? One tentative solution by the ERS is to provide resources (such as grants) to reduce the barriers for people to stand for election – to address the stated problem that people generally seek election only through parties. At the same time, they propose more local venues for election – a strong local government underpinned by further devolution to smaller units and/ or “’Mini-publics’ – deliberative local groups working alongside representative democracy, empowering people to run their own towns and villages”. The ERS perhaps have this sort of thing in mind (this isn’t just a wee joke; I really like the Gilmore Girls):

The ERS suggests that people who tend to be uninvolved in, or feel excluded from, national politics may be more likely to get involved in local politics. Indeed, this local involvement may be a springboard to local and national campaigns. There are perhaps two main problems which are partly addressed in the report. First, existing elected ‘elites’ may not share this enthusiasm for sharing power. Second, existing political parties may simply use these new venues as springboards for their own candidates. There is great potential for more layers of government populated by more representatives of parties (something that many of us may associate with the US). The ERS may or may not be right that ‘apathy is a myth’ but they do not show us how the non-partisan citizen can turn her or his newfound enthusiasm into a political project, engaging peers and attracting voters.

How could and should you give ‘more power to the people’?  The alternative to more people involved in elected politics is some variation of a citizen jury in which people are selected to represent a local population. This presents two issues to explore. First, the production of a quota-style jury may solve one problem of the former Scottish Civic Forum. It was a self-selecting group, producing many of the old biases – based on gender, race and ethnicity – that new forms of democracy are there to challenge. A quota system gives us the ability to select people according to the most recognised social divisions.  However, there is a danger that we are confusing diversity with representativeness, or diversity of opinion with a representative spread of opinion. Our hope is perhaps that people with certain characteristics represent people with a similar background, but I wonder how far we would go to make sure the system works (or, perhaps I am using the wrong standard here; for example, the substantial representation of women in Parliament is about much more than representing views or paying attention to certain issues).

Second, we need to think about how an unelected body will interact with an elected body. Which is the more legitimate actor here? Despite the general talk of distrust in politicians, we could assume that elected governments would make the final decision (and this seems to be the argument of the ERS when discussing juries). This may involve a decision that contradicts the views expressed by selected bodies, since politics is often about leadership and making unpopular decisions. Policymaking is also about evidence as well as opinion, and it usually involves gathering opinions, evidence and considering the unexpressed opinion from the latent public.  In this context, it is difficult to know the status of the new “diversity of ‘witnesses’ to provide evidence”. If the ERS is simply making a call for more opinions, good, but this is really about giving a voice to some people rather than power to the people.

The ERS goes further when promoting the idea of a Citizens’ Assembly – a selected body that could be given a statutory function beyond mere consultation. This may involve a ‘new form of legitimacy’ (p52) beyond the world of elected representatives; a Citizens’ Chamber could have the power to ‘veto’ decisions made by the executive (p51). The problem here is that there is not enough discussion of the difference between the role of a new assembly as a forum for public discussion and as a policymaking body. The ERS calls for a discussion of new forms of legitimacy without demonstrating how an unelected body would be legitimate in the eyes of the public. There is also no demonstration that selecting people using quotas and then putting them in the same room will produce a deliberative effect in which people use reason to persuade others. They suggest that party politics limits the ability of MSPs to perform this role, but do not demonstrate that the absence of overt electoral partisanship will produce something different. In effect, we are comparing the problems of the existing system with the possibilities of a new one. This is not a good comparison.

A better comparison is based on the experience of the past. For example, the ERS’ case may be more convincing if it can say how a new Citizens’ Assembly would be an improvement on the old Scottish Civic Forum – beyond the idea that it would be selected from above rather than self-selected (and why would two-thirds be retired or unemployed?). Interestingly, the ERS report sometimes betrays the problem of forum-based advice. It collects a range of opinions without always choosing between them or considering how to prioritise aims or if the aims expressed by some contradict those expressed by others. There is perhaps an implicit belief that politics is about consensus seeking and compromise; that by talking we can come to an agreement that suits both parties to some extent (so the report would be the start of a conversation). If so, I don’t buy it. It is equally convincing to say that politics is about winning and losing; by talking we get other people to agree with, or oppose less, our decisions.

How do we stop ‘vested interests’ having too much power? By ‘vested interests’, the ERS is describing the links between money and power, such as when people with a privileged background gain privileged access to government, people give large donations to parties and expect something in return, or when private companies use their resources to influence disproportionately (and benefit financially from) public policy. I think we can all agree that this is a bad thing. So far, so good. The SCC was accompanied by the idea of getting beyond the ‘usual suspects’ – the well-resourced groups most likely to be consulted by governments during policymaking. These are different things. The first discussion implies private people and businesses being dodgy, sometimes aided by corrupt politicians. The second may include groups representing doctors, nurses, teachers, charities and local government. On the other hand, in both cases we may be talking about ‘self interested advocacy’ which is an almost-inescapable (and often very useful) part of politics. I don’t think that the ERS suggests that advocacy is necessarily a bad thing. Instead, it is the stuff of politics: if we are affected by politics we get mobilised and engage directly. This is as true for community groups seeking to protect their community as to doctors protecting their hospitals or businesses protecting their profits.

In that context, it is difficult to see the effect of a lobbying bill (one proposed solution). It will not stop advocacy, but make some meetings more visible to the public. The public (or perhaps some people in some parts of some media) may then be asked to decide which meetings are legitimate. This works to some extent when MSPs have to declare their expenses (pp85-8) (although perhaps less well when declaring their interests), but advocacy is a bit different. Companies using money to secure outcomes is one thing, but companies giving information and advice is another. We must also remember the importance of winning and losing. Consider, for example, the idea that we limit the activities of lobbying firms – this may simply benefit those groups with the resources to fund their own lobbying. Corporate lobbyists are not just employed by big business – they are also used by groups unable to maintain their own advocacy staff. ‘Vested interests’ will not be removed by legislation, they will just regroup.

What is so wrong with political parties and representative government? An old argument by Grant Jordan and Linda Stevenson is that by talking up ‘new politics’ we produce two problems: more disenchantment with representative democracy (which is here to stay) and alternative forms of democracy (which is hyped up to the point that it will always seem to fail). What we need to remember is that parties and elections serve a purpose. Parties provide a way for people with shared ideas to coordinate their activity. The heated debate between parties can provide information to the public. Adversarialism serves a purpose – it exposes important differences and encourages people to make choices which produce winners and losers. Parties produce manifestos allowing the electorate to choose according to their beliefs. This benefit of representative democracy tends to be downplayed in discussion of new politics because we are looking for faults to justify reforms. I reckon that we could make an equally convincing case for representative democracy based on the flaws of direct participation. A more honest assessment of the pros and cons of all forms of democratic participation would produce a very different type of debate on the future of Scottish politics.

How politics works. The ERS makes some very bold claims, including reference to the ‘inability of unreformed majoritarian and representative systems of democracy to answer the demands of popular uprisings around the world’ (p12) and a ‘Falling turnout in elections’ which ‘is not an apathetic response of a disinterested public. To many it is a very rational response to their increasing distrust in and alienation from traditional politics’. In such cases, it is important to be clear about the meaning of ‘traditional politics’. In this case, it probably just means that we don’t like the idea of MPs or MSPs being too corrupt, too blinkered to the facts or public opinion or too adversarial in Parliament.

However, for me, ‘traditional politics’ is also about the practices that we should expect in any relevant political system. The public, Parliament and government ministers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of public policy. So they promote a very small number of issues to the top of their agenda and ignore the rest. The consequence is that most policy is made out of the public spotlight by civil servants engaging with organisations (such as interest groups, businesses, other parts of government). Those organisations trade information and advice for access to the political system. They often form trust-based relationships allowing groups to become involved in policymaking on a regular basis.

This is the context for any ‘new politics’ initiatives. Parliaments often seem ineffectual because there are 129 MSPs overseeing the work of 500,000 public employees. In that context, MSPs may be doing a good job at raising issues and providing a forum for deliberation (from the highly charged theatre of First Minister’s Questions to the more business-like inquiries in committees). Similarly, any new Citizens’ Assembly, elected or unelected, will be engaging with issues that represent a tiny proportion of government policy. They will shine a light on one house in a large city. If we expect more than that, we will be disappointed. Give it 20 more years and a new report will again say that politics is broken.

New Politics revisited. Still, the ERS report is valuable because it challenges us to think about the success of the original devolution reforms and consider the need for further reform. This type of discussion only seems possible when accompanied by a big event such as the prospect of further constitutional change. All I suggest is that we consider the potential drawbacks to a rejection of past decisions based on the assumption that old initiatives failed. If our expectations are too high, all initiatives will fail.


Filed under public policy, Scottish politics, Social change

7 responses to “Democracy Max

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