Brace yourselves – I’m talking about Brexit and it isn’t pretty.
Nearly 3 years ago I wrote about my despair in the party political system and the urgent need to reform it as a critical blocker in terms of making any kind of democratic or political process. It turns out that I was premature because our democracy is currently being made a mockery of by party politics. Yes – it’s worse than we could imagine. At the time I said:
Reforming party politics will take more rhetoric. Party infrastructure is built to face the media in preference to the public and is designed around a hierarchy which in the main part relies on establishment power. The change which is needed here is for this hierarchy to genuinely open itself to influence by its members and to take engagement beyond the passing of information in the same way that those of us outside of those structures need to open ourselves up to collaboration meaning more than an opportunity to persuade people to agree with you.
I believe that we deserve a better democratic conversation than we have currently and that that requires us to listen and engage with each other more effectively. This is not about how do we give or take power but how we lend or share power.
The party political system as it stands at the moment has no place in our future democracy – democracy for the network society can and should enable authentic and ongoing citizen engagement in decision making which results in action not rhetoric. We have to strive for this if we want to reduce and not grow the divisions in our country. Party politics cannot not save us without savings itself first.
For all the recent vogue in calling for citizens assemblies we have seen no meaningful attempt in the last 3 years to reengage with the public about what is a question of generational importance and now national crisis. Neither have we seen meaningful action by any of the political parties to engage and involve their own members.
It makes it particularly irking that the only group to try and make change happen in this space are doing so by….creating a political party. And not only that – creating one with practically the same name as a highly successful grassroots campaigning organisation. Does the the solipsism of Westminster no no bounds?
There are honourable exceptions to this and many of the people – and I would put Caroline Lucas MP at the heart of this – who are calling for a people’s vote are doing it with the best democratic intent but really – we need to think differently.
Its not as if this is unimaginable. In France President Macron – in response to the agitation of the gillets jaunes – instigated a national listening exercise (this article in the London Review of Books gives a great overview of this) and in Ireland – and other places – they have for a long time been making meaningful use of the Citizen Assembly format (we have even used it informally here in the UK).
The party political system is squatting like a toad on our democracy and it won’t let it go unless we make it. And that is what we are starting to see happen – disquiet and rage at the inadequacy of our current politics is putting people on the streets and this isn’t in the form of polite and respectful protest.
I think part of my frustration – and my own rage – here is knowledge of the wealth of democratic innovation that is out there and my conviction that real communities out there want to do things differently (if you are not sure about this then just look at the hugely successful Wigan Deal). It is in the nature of elites to hold onto power but the challenge here is that political parties do not see themselves like this – they instead see themselves as democratic instruments despite the profound lack of evidence to support this belief.
This is not a post with reasoned answers or polite questions but a request that all of us who are able to participate in the Brexit bubble with its reality TV like media coverage stop and think that whatever we want from Brexit we have to want better for our communities. Better engagement, better reciprocity and ultimately better democracy that will mean that in the complex world we live in we are better able to face off into complex and difficult problems collaboratively and with more maturity than the Westminster circus is currently showing us.