Quick notes from ‘Contact democracy for the hyper-connected age’ event

Policy Network and the Barrow Cadbury Trust are running a great little series of events under the umbrella title of ‘Understanding the Populist Signal’. Last night’s was ‘Contact democracy for the hyper-connected age‘ – probably the area most closely related to my own interests.

Prof. David Farrell of University College Dublin gave the main presentation – an excellent review of both the pessimistic view of democracy (turnout down by an alarming rate in all large Western democracies – but watch those Scandi’s bucking the trend, of course) and the optimistic view (today we engage in different ways – by signing petitions, by tweeting a minister – and we hate the phrase politics, but that doesn’t mean we don’t practise it). Even on constitutional reform – which can seem to be going nowhere – Farrell argued that the UK has been a lot more successful over the last 20 years than his home country of Ireland (e.g. progress on Freedom of Information and the Human Rights Act).

His main proposition for what we should be doing differently (if I understood correctly) was the value in “mini-publics” – small groups of randomly selected citizens doing ‘deliberative democracy’ – talking through important issues with the ability to call on experts if required. The Irish example that Farrell gave also included politicians (about 1/3rd of the participants). They had some interesting results: there will be a referendum on same-sex marriage, and potentially another on expanding the franchise to 16 and 17 yr olds. Farrell reported that initially sceptical politicians and journalists who attended the events were impressed.

It’s a great idea – and has been used widely in the UK for a while, by the likes of Involve. I’m curious as to how ‘random’ it is – do they use the same system as for jury duty? Can citizens refuse to take part? And there were questions raised about how they scale-up this approach – at which point it seems like online tools like Loomio would play a role. And at what point does it stop being useful?

Is there also a problem, with these groups, in terms of further weakening the role of politicians as leaders? (If we take it for granted that leadership is an important role for parliamentarians). Given that mini-publics sound a lot like focus groups – presumably that’s where the idea comes from – is there a risk that, as with focus groups, they end up discouraging risk-taking and idealism in politics? Think about how dull and tightly controlled the Labour line is – I’m sure that’s partly a result of the fact that policies all have to be focus-grouped – you lose idealism, you lose any sense of inspiration from politics. People switch off further…and we enter a vicious circle of disengagement.

But perhaps moral / ideal leadership is no longer what we seek from politicians. Perhaps that comes from other spaces.

The event covered lots of other issues: what is the role for parties in a ‘contact democracy’? Several people (inc Tim Bale) defended parties as the necessary aggregator of opinion in the face of the new digital young individualism of ‘I want this now’ and a lack of understanding of how political compromise occurs.

On the panel was Kathryn Perera, the Chief Exec of Movement for Change, who made good contributions. I hadn’t previously grasped the point of M4C, but it’s about coaching, organising and empowering communities to come together to create change on an issue they care about. For example, get people affected by zero-hours contracts to organise for change on that issue. And because you focus on an issue that a community really cares about – it affects them, their friends, their families – they do get involved, learn how to organise, learn what a petition is, what an MP is…and voila, they can start getting involved in bigger issues too. Smart stuff.

One interesting piece of consensus across the panel and audience appeared to be for the idea that MPs/councillors should now become facilitators – managing or encouraging conversations among constituents – helping people to come up with solutions to the problems they identify – or helping them organise where that’s not possible. That’s fascinating, and could be a bit of a shock to a lot of representatives – those that ‘get it’ quicker than their colleagues will keep their seats. (Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow was given as a good example)

Lastly, ‘Brexit’ popped up – the risk/opportunity of/for the UK leaving the EU – both as a chance to ignite widespread political debate (a la the Scottish referendum) and as a potential ‘crisis’ necessary to lead to potential constitutional change.

Interesting times.

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