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The Labour Party grew out of a long tradition of democratic reform. Whether it’s social democracy or democratic socialism – the word democracy figures deeply in the history, culture and psyche of the party. To challenge the power of capital, the exploitation of ordinary people and the long accumulated hereditary power of privilege and wealth, the ‘people’s party’ has always had to build democratic power. This challenge relies on the day-to-day democratic power of law-making, regulation and decision-making that come to us via the democratic state. And the day-to-day workings of democracy rely on the mechanisms for local and civic democratic participation. Without democracy, Labour is feeble.
Working people have fought for a democratic voice ever since the Levellers and the Chartists, and throughout the 20th Century, Labour campaigned for, and delivered, greater democracy. The 1997 Labour government devolved power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but the work is unfinished. The relationship between these governments has not been worked through, the voice of England is missing, and the partnership that is needed for the future of the United Kingdom has not been created. While important new changes such as the UK Human Rights Act and the Freedom of Information Act were introduced, other democratic reforms, such as reform of the House of Lords, were also left unfinished. As Anthony Barnett points out, the old British constitution was broken, but a new one was never created.116
The new power movements we now see around us represent a different way that people, through new technology, can find a voice. Social media, and the vastly greater communication power of groups and movements challenges the boundaries of old democratic practices. People’s lives are more global, but also intensely local. Just using a Twitter hashtag, we are immediately connected to any issue or group we want – sectorally, locally, nationally and globally. We have access to extensive information about policies and practices, we can link to campaigns in the click of a button, we can express preferences as citizens as easily as we express preferences as consumers, but our institutions lag behind. Forms of democracy conceived 200 or more years ago – are simply insufficient to meet the rising demand to know, connect, discuss and decide.
Of course, as social democrats/democratic socialists we want an equal distribution of democratic power. Technology that can in principle reach everywhere and everyone could in principle lay the basis for an extension of democracy, but as we have seen, it also creates the spectre of a demotic populism that threatens to overrun due process and the safeguards of the rule of law. We need both to strengthen and deepen our democratic institutions, and to create spaces for deliberation where all of us can engage in solution-making. As Compass has argued in 45° Change117, the challenge is getting the vertical and top-down state to begin working in harmony with a more horizontal and emergent participation that will, in turn, unlock the full potential of both the state, civil society and the people.
But democratic reform has not played a sufficient role in the party’s recent thinking. As we have argued throughout this pamphlet, we can’t make the changes to society we want to see using the old-fashioned mechanisms that we inherited from a conservative past. The 1997 Labour government began to develop a comprehensive approach, but was overtaken by events – delivering much, but not enough.
A future Labour government will face the enormous challenge of climate change. Our whole society will need to change the way we think, behave, and work. To develop the consensus needed to transform society and the economy in the face of this will require all the energy and creativity of state, civil society and citizens, and we need a democratic framework that can make that possible. As Anthony Barnett has said, “what matters now is a single determining matter of power, fundamental to democracy on earth. Are we going to govern ourselves in terms of our overall humanity, and will this be the measure of things, or are we going to leave it to corporate interests?”118
Democratic reform could be popular and could contribute to electoral success if framed in the right terms. Despite the deep popular desire for greater openness and transparency in government, and for a say in the decisions that affect us all, deepening democracy is the one place the Conservatives will never go. This is because democracy poses an existential threat to them and the vested interests they represent. The current weakening of checks and balances has led to a decline in parliamentary standards with increasing corruption in terms of both MPs expense and government contracts. Democratic reform makes good government more likely, and corruption, sleaze, and exploitation harder. An alert, transparent, participatory process of governance protects us all.
But Labour can only really make headway on these issues by championing a new democratic settlement. Otherwise, the public just shrug and assume wrongly that ‘they are all the same’. So democratic reform, as well as being the right thing to do, is also essential to being able to govern effectively. But what might that entail? A new democratic settlement would include devolving power and establishing democratic partnership at all levels; renewing representative democracy and embracing newer deliberative techniques; and creating a pluralist culture of collaboration, participation and dialogue.
A radical approach to devolved government would mean shifting from regarding government as a top-down hierarchy to one of democratic partnership at all levels. The Westminster government should recognise the deep knowledge that comes from local experience and the very different problems and solutions in different parts of the United Kingdom.
Labour initiated a process of devolution by devolving power to the national governments in Scotland and Wales, to Northern Ireland, and to London, but the effective governance of the UK requires a much better system of intergovernmental working. The party has made an important first step by appointing Gordon Brown to oversee its thinking on the future of the Union via a Commission on the Future of the UK.119 In the future, the government at Westminster needs to acknowledge that the UK is a union of four nations and build mechanisms for regular communication and cooperation between them, which means accepting that England needs to be represented in these discussions. Currently it’s left to UK ministers to decide how and even whether they engage with local and devolved governments. Going forward, the UK government could begin to convene regular meetings of the four governments (Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland) to share learning, information, and make decisions on UK wide issues.
Devolution to local government lags far behind. We have arguably the most centralised state in Europe: the resources of local government have been dangerously reduced, and the powers of local government weakened over decades. A future Labour government must reverse this and strengthen both the financial and legal basis of effective local government. A future democratic settlement should include a constitutional recognition of the powers of local government. Instead of local government being dependent on central government initiatives and pilots, local government needs space to innovate in economic and social policy, and adequate sources of taxation, investment and finance. As the Institute for Government describes:
“Most of the government’s flagship policies, including the Towns Fund and the Levelling Up Fund, allocate funding based on bids that local areas submit. This gives central government a lot of power over funding decisions and the types of projects that are eligible, rather than giving local areas more autonomy to decide how best to spend money to boost local growth. There is therefore a gap between some of the government’s stronger rhetoric on the need for more devolution, and the reality that central government continues to control where most of the money goes.”120
A progressive government at Westminster would be working alongside local government mayors and leaders to learn from local experience and to co-create solutions that work on the ground.
Devolution of power to local authorities means accepting differences between the regions, between cities and rural areas, and between the wealth and resources of different parts of the country. This will lead to a continuing messiness in the devolution process, which should be led from bottom-up proposals for new powers, based on the partnerships and arrangements formed in local areas and sub-regions. As we argue in the chapter on localities, devolution does not mean that government cannot work at scale, but it means shifting from top-down control, to working with the regional partnerships that local authorities are creating for themselves. Working with the real felt sense of identity of local people will be crucial in building citizen confidence in government at all levels.
As we explore in the chapter on localities, devolution of power to local authorities is only one step in the wider change of the relationship between the state and communities and citizens. A very different relationship with communities, recognising an equality of expertise and experience is being led at local level.
Talk of devolution often leads to anxiety about the emergence of greater inequality due to a “postcode lottery”, as services across the regions might evolve differently depending on local needs. But if we are not to prevent local innovation and creativity, we must find ways to proliferate and copy best practice, rather than standardising outdated ways of doing things. One new power method of overcoming this is through the sharing of information and best practices across localities. Here, the state’s role becomes less about centralisation of provision and more about sharing learning and practice, supporting the transfer and spread of effective new forms of delivery. In this more collaborative culture of learning local statecraft, local devolved governments would help upskill and improve each other. In this collaborative culture we will need to encourage the movement of staff and managers between civil society, local government and national government.
Labour should commit itself to a programme of thorough-going reform of our representative system of governing. It needs to follow through the partial reforms of 1997 and create the institutions and working arrangements that will sustain a more inclusive and effective democracy. The proposal to hold a Constitutional Convention is a good starting point. A Labour government needs to lead a participative process that would fully working through the logic of empowering people and places. Reform needs to include the machinery of government, the judiciary and other relevant social institutions and playing a leading role in democratising our international institutions –moving towards developing a more codified constitution that will enshrine our democratic freedoms, checks and balances. As Anthony Barnett points out, it is not that Britain doesn’t have a constitution, but because it is not articulated, it can be easily changed by governments without seeking public consent. As a consequence, important democratic safeguards have been weakened. A codified constitution could begin to define our identity, our rights and our mutual responsibilities as an inclusive democracy122.
In our chapter on localities, we have set out how at local level communities can work alongside councils in shaping solutions and we made a series of suggestions about how a Labour government could support and enable this. All these reforms and more have been long mooted. But that doesn’t make them any less essential.
Finally, there is the issue of how Labour decides what package of reforms is the most appropriate. From electoral reform to devolution, there are many democratic reforms on the table, which could significantly change the current system. The process for deciding on these changes should be both deliberative and democratic. Ideally politicians should not regulate themselves and should instead entrust a Citizens’ Assembly or Convention to undertake the task. Based on a representative sample of the whole population, such a group would be given the resources and time to make recommendations – with a strong onus on MPs to pass and enact their recommendations or be held to account.
But as well as reforming our formal democratic institutions, a future government needs to engage in a permanent dialogue with citizens, communities and civil society organisations.
The party’s faith in democracy should be evidenced not just through reform of existing institutions, but also through the practice of participative culture throughout politics. Local leaders are already looking beyond traditional forms of engagement and consultation, by experimenting with deliberative decision-making.
Deliberative democracy has witnessed a renaissance in recent years. The approach is founded on the principle that, provided with the right conditions - ample time, information, good facilitation and meaningful political engagement – citizens make judicious and thoughtful decisions that reflect the public will. Deliberative processes often involve sortition - the process of bringing randomly selected individuals, demographically representative of the broader population, into the heart of decision-making, akin to jury service. Those selected are given a clear mandate to learn about an issue, deliberate as a group and produce a set of recommendations. Typically commissioned by a political authority – a local council, regional body or national government – the process establishes a new relationship between citizen and representative, one which gives citizens a clear role in the practice of setting political priorities.
These deliberative processes take various forms: some, like citizens’ juries, are small-scale – sometimes involving as few as 10 – 20 people, usually for local or neighbourhood decisions. Others – such as the more widespread citizens’ assemblies (CAs) – typically convene 50 – 100 people over the course of several weekends of highly facilitated and structured discussion. This form of deliberation has mushroomed in recent years: the deliberative democracy organisation Involve’s tracker has kept a tally of at least 38 CAs across the UK since 2018123. This is partly local councils’ response to a steep decline in public trust and widely reported political disaffection. The council leaders who were first to pioneer CAs were explicitly driven by an interest in addressing these divides. Georgia Gould, leader of Camden Council, one of the earliest councils to commission a CA on climate change, sounded decisive: “there has been a breach of trust in politics, we’ve got a situation of division and people are being pulled away from each other. There is a lot on social media about people feeling angry and left out of the national dialogue.”124
But the interest in CAs has also arisen from the recognition that, when tackling complicated policy questions – from urban planning to the climate crisis to hate crime – citizens have experience, good instincts and wisdom. Deliberative democracy offers an ancient approach to tackling complex, difficult questions and could re-establish the connection between representative politics and the people it claims to represent. Deliberative democracy offers so much that our everyday politics doesn’t: it is participatory, nuanced, respectful and productive. Citizen assemblies and similar processes show citizens as thoughtful, imaginative, serious and engaged – a welcome reaffirmation of faith in our fellow voters. Rather than reinforcing criticisms of politicians, most CAs to date have shown how the relationship between representation and participation can be mutually reinforcing.
Citizen Assemblies have been responsible for serious shifts in policy. The landmark legislation that legalised equal marriage and the removal of the ban on abortion in Ireland were both the direct results of recommendations from citizens’ assemblies. Closer to home, the UK’s National Climate Assembly broke new ground in helping politicians think through the practicalities of their commitment to net zero by 2050125. Local CAs have raised the ambition of their authorities on climate action – such as Leeds CA being explicit about their intention to make private cars a “last resort” for citizens and to bring back buses within “public control126. In other cases, CAs have alighted upon interesting and imaginative solutions – such as the include the citizens of Bristol inventing the ‘One Stop Shop’ for sustainability improvements, where citizens could visit both a website and a physical shop to get good ideas about reducing their personal footprint127. In all cases, citizens helped representatives negotiate their way through intractable political dilemmas, offered new ideas and weighed up tricky trade-offs128. CAs are not about consulting citizens; they are about involving them in the hard work of political decision making. In the process, everyone learns something: politicians often emerge with a renewed respect for their constituents and citizens with an understanding of how hard political prioritisation can be.
There are a myriad of organisations helping to promote, sustain and develop these practices –such as Involve, Democratic Society, Shared Future CIC and the Sortition Foundation. Labour could seek support in extending democratic experimentation, for example in neighbourhoods, in schools and in the workplace. Deliberative processes can help re-connect politicians and citizens with the underlying spirit of democracy; that a democratic society is one that has faith in both the right and the capability of citizens to be involved in collective decision-making. Citizens feel this right keenly; it’s the opportunity to be involved that has been missing. All over the UK, Labour politicians are finding that opening out their processes results in healthier relations with citizens, stronger links across their communities and better decisions on key policy questions.
Where Labour is in power, in local councils and in Wales, Labour leaders have been at the forefront of developing and deepening democracy.
Several councils have been experimenting with different forms of democratic engagement. Many councils have deployed the use of citizens’ assemblies, most notably around the climate emergency to test and develop voters’ appetites for new policy measures. As we illustrate above, Camden Council has been leading the way here, with their CA on the climate129. Newham Council conducted an external review of its democratic structures, led by Nick Pearce, and this has led to a standing assembly of local citizens shadowing the council130. In Barking and Dagenham, Council Leader Darren Rodwell has been developing the idea of Citizens’ Action Networks as a new interface between the council and civil society – where power is truly shared131. But across the country Labour councils are experimenting with new and different form of democratic engagement. The growth of the Cooperative Council Network speaks to this growing interest in new forms of common ownership and accountability.
One of the biggest sources of innovation has been Labour in Wales. Here, Mark Drakeford has been pushing at the boundaries of reform, first by developing a right for councils to adopt a form of proportional representation and, more recently, by looking at Wales-wide electoral reform to ensure the Senedd most accurately reflects the attitudes of the people of Wales132. To achieve this, he has made a partnership with Plaid Cymru.
A future UK government needs to learn from these examples and begin to introduce more democratic experiments into everyday practice. The shift that is needed is to control less, and trust more. Democracy, at its heart, involves trusting the wisdom of the people, and creating the frameworks and rules that best support and enable us to shape our own lives.
Earlier in this project, we published a paper called Labour and New Power133 We suggested that the organisation of the Labour Party also needs to respond to the opportunities created by new power and to pay attention to its own culture, habits and behaviours. We suggested a range of shifts the party could make, including turning outwards to work alongside community organisations, working collaboratively with civil society organisations, involving party members in thinking through the difficult dilemmas the party faces, creating strong relationships through social activities, building the party’s literacy in ‘new power’ ways of working and spending time building solutions and making things happen at local level, instead of making speeches in meetings. Labour will need leaders at all levels who can lead collaboratively and will need to manage its own affairs in ways that model good democratic process. Labour will not govern in a collaborative inclusive way until it feels able to behave collaboratively and inclusively as an organisation.
A future Labour government needs to let go more and control less. There are risks associated with this, but the risks of believing that a Labour government should behave now as it did in 1945 or even 1997 are greater. To ‘dare more democracy’ was the slogan of Willy Brandt, the famed leader of the German SDP in the 1970s. It ought to be the guiding thread of Labour as a way of achieving and building the potential of office in the 2020s.
We will not change society if we can’t change ourselves. People don’t trust politicians because they say: ‘you say one thing and do another’. Political parties can’t afford to do that. We face huge challenges, balancing conflicting demands and needs, at a time of high risk for our country and our planet. We must convince a sceptical public that a better life is achievable, that alternatives to a greedy, wasteful, exploitative capitalism are possible. We have to show that a social democratic state can achieve change without being over-centralised, dictatorial, rigid or punitive. We need to show that democracy can hear from many competing voices and still govern with consent; that a collective and collaborative action works; and that, with autonomy and support, people can self-organise to co-create solutions to the problems they face.