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04 December 2019

Could manifesto commitments restore faith in democracy?

Graham Allen

GRAHAM ALLEN: The cross-party consensus emerging from the manifestos on deliberative democracy is a positive foundation to build on post-election


The Policy Institute is producing a series of comment pieces analysing election manifesto pledges from the different parties across a range of policy areas. Read the full series here

Along with climate change, the most urgent policy issue facing the UK is the need to restore the UK as a viable and sustainable democracy. It’s therefore encouraging to see this addressed in all the main UK party manifestos.

Whatever the superficial coverage of and daily soundbites coming from the election campaign, the manifestos have been written against a backdrop of a growing awareness of the underlying crisis of British democracy and (thankfully) it shows. Addressing the elitist and populist symptoms be they Brexit, fake news, politics as entertainment, social media manipulation and so on is no longer enough. The malaise goes much deeper and the manifestos give us the first inklings of how to tackle the causes.

Most serious work in political thinking and practice on this issue has gelled around answering three issues:

  • How trust can be restored between elected representatives and the citizen;
  • How effective our political process is for decision-making;
  • How change can transform the current dysfunctional system

The optimist and the campaigner will read the democracy sections of these manifestos not as old-fashioned lists of policy but as the prelude to action to build effective political process. The two hundred year obsession to achieve votes for all has been achieved and now hangs like a dead-weight around fresh thinking and activity. It has to be superseded with a new mission to take our democracy to the next level.

It is encouraging therefore that all the main parties come to this election with proposals which commit to one means or another of evolving democracy. Of course these are not identical or fully formed proposals but each of the main parties refer to conventions, assemblies, or commissions to look into our democracy. They wittingly or unwittingly draw on the growing national and global culture of deliberative democracy. The efforts to develop approaches on democratic evolution, which are firmly based on a new, respectful partnership between citizens and their elected representatives, as outlined for example by the Citizens Convention on UK Democracy based at King's College London, appear to be having an impact on all parties

All in all while this is just a start, if we seize this moment it is the best ever broad-based line-up of manifesto policy commitments on democratic evolution in my political lifetime as a democratic reformer.

Graham Allen

The Conservative Party has traditionally not engaged deeply in the field of democratic review, yet they have promised “that in our first year we will set up a constitution, democracy and rights Commission that will examine these [democratic] issues In depth and come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions and democracy.” While this is not yet a commitment to Athenian deliberation, it will be seen by all but the side-line commentator as a door to be pushed open to help create a trusted, deliberative citizens’ engagement.

We are all responsible for pressing for a serious national debate, which goes well beyond the confines of what are necessarily vote seeking manifestos. The end game of serious democratic change ultimately has to be delivered in the legislature, the idea of winning this without both of the two main parties is a diminishing self-indulgence.

Of course each party has a different agenda for change. The Labour Party has until recently sought to qualify its commitment to an entirely open and impartial process by suggesting it could be party or government-guided, yet even that has been eased in the manifesto drafting this time round. The Liberal Democrats and the Green Party continue to be staunch advocates of citizens assemblies and conventions, but they generously help their bigger siblings to see the light rather than abuse the latter for their ignorance.

All in all while this is just a start, if we seize this moment it is the best ever broad-based line-up of manifesto policy commitments on democratic evolution in my political lifetime as a democratic reformer.

Many advocates of specific all-or-nothing campaigns have kept the flame of reform alive but nonetheless struggle to come to terms with deliberative democracy. If citizens are genuinely allowed to choose by “doing democracy in good conditions”, they may not necessarily always come up with the outcomes and proposals that single issue reformers have spent their lives campaigning for. This is not to say those advocates “should be careful of what you wish for”, but they should have the humility to allow impartial and effective processes led by citizens to take their course. This is no longer about policy it is about process – how we get it done. It is also a process which, if these manifestos help make it a part of our democratic culture, will not just be a problem fixed but a live, organic, central part of our democracy for generations to come.

This is the moment to push this trembling boulder a little harder down the road towards a genuinely independent, fully representative and impartial Citizens’ Convention on UK democracy. It is also a stride towards the culture of deliberative democracy becoming the new normal that heals and grows our democracy.

Holding back and commentating on what others do is no longer an option. Capitalising over the life of the next parliament on the collective sentiment of these 2019 manifestos may well be the last time that such an opportunity for democratic renewal will exist.

Graham Allen is a former MP and Chair of the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee. He is now an Executive Board member of the Citizens’ Conventionon UK Democracy at King's College London.

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