Relying on a national government to foment "deliberative democracy"? You may be waiting a while...

Graphic adapted  from here

Graphic adapted from here

We don’t like running “can’t do” stories on the Daily Alternative (there’s enough of them around). But it might be useful to tell this one - because it shows how important it is for communities and localities to keep building their own powers and autonomy, and not be waiting for central government (run by whatever party) to “grant” them those powers.

This blog from the Electoral Reform Society relates the tale of how the current UK government proposed last summer to fund several experiments in “deliberative democracy” - everything from Citizens Assemblies to online voting - as a part of their Civil Society Strategy (which we blogged about, with mild hope, here). As they recall:

Councils leapt at the opportunity to do democracy differently, with seventy local authorities expressing an interest. Eight experiments were given the green light, with local authorities given £60,000 each to run them…

[From the Times report]: They included:

  • tackling hate crime in Waltham Forest, east London

  • regulating the use of bailiffs in Barking and Dagenham, east London,

  • transport powers in Greater Manchester

  • a town centre development in Dudley, West Midlands

  • deprivation in Essex.

  • engaging with young people in Wirral

  • congestion in and around Cambridge

  • waste recycling in the Test Valley, Hampshire.

There were two reserve options:

  • another town centre development in Wolverhampton

  • improving air quality in Kingston, southwest London.

(In passing, we’d note how hands-on, and focussed on the challenges and infrastructure of each locality, each experiment in democracy is here. Something that very much echoes our work in Plymouth).

However, this encouraging spread has become a victim of the Brexit chaos. As the Times further reports:

Ministers refused to sign them off and the innovation in democracy programme came close to being scrapped. There was a Whitehall stand-off as the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government opposed it, with support from Downing Street, but the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport backed it.

In a compromise, ministers agreed last week that three less controversial local consultations would go ahead. [Editorial: we’ve been trying to find out exactly what they are - there’s not much public information. If anyone knows, please inform us in comments page below].

One source familiar with the process attributed the change of heart to “deep-seated fears about giving the public a greater democratic voice in the context of Brexit” and the dynamics of support for the Leave campaign but said that it was a misunderstanding to compare a citizens’ assembly to the Brexit referendum.

Well, that’s a shame - but it’s not altogether surprising. The muttering from the Times correspondent also suggests that cold feet set in when various non-Tory voices wanted to use citizens assemblies to decide a new position on Brexit, during whatever delay could be achieved on the leaving date. C’est la vie, c’est la guerre!

But it’s a good caution to those parties and bodies who seek to bring democratic practice closer to the people. We shouldn’t rest any steady faith that the top-down structures can respond adequately to ground-up pressures for more voice and control.

If the “demos” wants to feel its own power, it may be better building things here and now, and setting an example to wider authorities. Let them be, as Michel Bauwens says, a “partner state” to civic and local power and its enterprises. However, no-one’s coming to save us, but ourselves.