Alternative Editorial: Poeticians, micro-utopias and citizens assemblies will renew democracy

 From Byline Festival 2018. Pic: Indra Adnan

From Byline Festival 2018. Pic: Indra Adnan

By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of A/UK

A phrase we hear often is that we are in a crisis of democracy. But I wonder what is meant by that, in reality? In Europe and many other parts of the world, we have universal suffrage, which means simply that all adults have a right to vote. That’s far more  than we might imagine – women still didn’t have the vote in Italy and France until 1945. 

Today we still have the same right to vote – although in some countries there are issues of registration, corruption and falsification that are now testing the boundaries of the law. Yet the principle still holds firm: we have a right to vote that sometimes needs to be defended.

Perhaps this is the real crisis: our sharply increasing awareness of how meaningless these rights are, when we cannot participate directly in the shaping of our democracy, despite having a vote. Our democratic right is reduced to ticking a box once every five years. And at Westminster, it's largely a choice between two parties - with three others contributing in small ways to how much of a majority those two have. 

Where, in this, is our agency as citizens? We are like children whose parents tell us we can do whatever we like today - knowing full well that, as parents, they will ultimately decide.

Here at The Alternative UK, we therefore think about this moment in democracy as a rich opportunity. Since the information revolution, people have woken up to the limitations of representative democracy, especially within a first past the post system. Even if, for reasons of life-style or other preferences, people would choose to stay with the current system, there’s no denying that counter arguments have arisen and need to be answered. Klina Jordan’s campaign to Make Votes Matter for example, deals forensically with the unfairness of our system, pointing out that x% of people’s votes are entirely wasted.

Rather than a crisis, it’s a moment of development and innovation. People are much better equipped today than they were forty years ago to understand the political system, acknowledge the dynamics and respond powerfully.  It is no longer simply a critique of political parties or a battle of ideologies. We are in an age of political entrepreneurship where entirely new forms of democratic activity are being imagined.

To some extent we can thank Brexit for highlighting, in the simplest terms, whatever we mean by the "democratic deficit": our lack of control over our own futures. At the Byline Festival in Uckfield this weekend, we saw a number of different initiatives that each have their own political history and geographical location. But they fit well together and would add up to a completely different idea of democracy for the future.

On Saturday morning, Jamie Kelsey-Fry of the New Internationalist, introduced a raft of pioneers that he sees as championing the emerging forms. 

Rasmus Nordqvist, MP and Foreign Affairs spokesperson for Alternativet in Denmark set the scene by acknowledging the crises we are facing are environmental, systemic and – at the heart of our politics – a crisis in empathy. Alternativet appeared in politics without a manifesto or a political programme but proceeded to crowdsource one, through a system of laboratories opened up around the country.

In the first five years they became the fastest growing party in Denmark, the third largest in Copenhagen (taking a Mayoral seat in the capital and several more across the country). In the next election they are flouting the usual conventions, whereby smaller parties support one or other of the bigger parties’ nomination for Prime Minister. In the figure of their founder, Uffe Elbaek, they are bidding for the premiership themselves. Elbaek’s recently announced radical political programme, The Next Denmark, hopes to reinvent politics as an instrument of the people. 

Bernardo Gutierrez from the 15M movement in Spain talked about how the ‘movement of the squares’ that later became Occupy had shifted again. It's moved from protest against the old forms of governance by the elite, into a new age of prototyping future societies. This piece written in 2013 points at what was coming and is now in full swing: a constantly iterating social experiment in which the people are sovereign. New forms of childcare, public services, gender relations, food projects – manifesting as micro-utopias. What is most notable maybe, is the confidence and pride inherent in this developing culture: it exudes freedom. We’ll bring you up to date on the progress of this movement in next week’s blog.

Sitting next to him was Birgitta Jonsdottir, self-styled poetician, anarchist and former Chair of the Pirate Party, which was invited to form a government at the last elections in Iceland last year. They failed and with that, Birgitta quit the Althing (Parliament) knowing that - had she become Prime Minister - she would have been powerless.

In her time as an MP, Birgitta witnessed the collapse of the Iceland economy and the remarkable writing of a new constitution by an early form of Citizens Assembly, which the government subsequently refused to implement. 

Today she is back at the grass roots, fomenting People’s Assemblies at a local, national and global level – using the same technology that enabled the fated Icelandic constitution. Like Bernardo, she sees old politics as broken and new politics arising from prototyping and iteration. Having had the pinnacle of national power in her grasp, Birgitta's messages are strikingly simple:

“The idea of the People’s Assemblies is not to become a cult, but for people to understand that they have a lot of desires in common - and that has power. Never let a lawyer write your constitution! Everyone should be able to read it, understand it and feel it straight away.

“But don’t project your own desire for power upon your politicians. The current party system robs Parliament of power: everyone is forced to compromise. Only with massive participation from the people coming together, can Parliament be an instrument of change.”

Taking all these strong, movement-based initiatives to their most radical conclusion, Brett Hennig, author of a book about sortition – the random selection of people in any given polity – proposed getting rid of parties altogether. In his book The End of Politicians: Time for a Real Democracy, he describes how democracy can only be ‘achieved’ by what Aristotle, Rousseau and Montesquieu called the drawing of lots. Any form of election or ‘choosing’, they agree, will result in an aristocracy or oligarchy.

Using Citizens AssembliesPolicy Juries and Peoples’ Panels as examples of how we are increasingly trusting this process in small ways, Hennig urged us to consider starting with replacing our current House of Lords with a second chamber run by sortition – as Alternativet does in their paper (and as the Scottish think-tank Common Weal suggested for the Holyrood Parliament in 2017).

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On another stage the following day, Peter Macfadyen’s Flatpack Democracy was added to the mix. We’ve described this process of taking back control of a town council – as he did in Frome - many times in these blogs.   Imagine a bigger vision of this process, where people stepping up to citizenship make their mark felt all the way up to the national level. In this, the Flatpack culture and structure - emphasising human creativity and relationship between people - would become essential. 

Developing the basic agency of citizens – without changing their essential community spirit and belonging – brings the local, national and global together instantly. You yourself could be enacting the decisions it takes to change the course of climate change, or toend the inequality of social outcomes. 

What will it take for this package of innovations to become understood and popular? In many ways, it’s early days. On the other hand, the logic is becoming simpler, not more complex. We’ll keep exploring the relationship between them and invite you to come on the journey with us. Watch this space.