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Primarily missing the point: the debate on primaries distracts us from real efforts to include the public in our democracy

This article appeared on LabourList as part of my guest editorship:

Much has been made in recent weeks of the benefits or otherwise of primaries in choosing our elected representatives. Questions of who pays, who votes and who is left out crop up time and again. It’s an understandable response to the battering our democratic system has taken in the past year and an attempt to reengage the public in politics.

But this focus on primaries is distracting us from the real issue – how to better include the public in our democracy.

General elections, and therefore selections, come along every four or five years. So what happens in between, for the 200-odd weeks when we are not considering individuals’ allegiances and voting records? Democracy must mean more than the few at the top of the pyramid of representative politics. The shake-up we really need is to engage the public meaningfully and genuinely in the fabric of their services and of society. Representative democratic institutions were designed for the supervision of small-scale government in a self-regulating society – the consumer-driven, 24-hour media world we live in now is very different.

Some of the service-specific structures that this Government has supported so strongly, like Foundation Hospitals or Co-operative Trust Schools, seek to address this deficit in our democracy. The Co-operative Party has proposed others – a more accountable Network Rail or BBC for instance. But we need to take this approach to the core of our politics, to change the way our politicians, our councils, our civil servants do business. Civil servants need to feel responsible for meeting the wishes not just of politicians or external regulators, but of the people they serve.

Participatory budgeting is one mechanism designed to bring local communities closer to the decision-making process around the public budget. It relies on a flexible set of community engagement techniques, adaptable to local circumstances, but which share a common principle – that power lies with those who decide how new money is to be spent. Pioneered in Porto Alegre, Brazil in the late 1980s, it is now practiced in over 300 cities around the world, involving more than 12 million people. Common practice throughout all of these cities has included:

  • Holding city-wide forums to involve local communities in discussion of their priorities and targets, as well as to evaluate and monitor ongoing activity.
  • Clearly setting out the annual cycle of dialogue and decision making, linked to the council’s budget-setting process.
  • Supporting ordinary citizens through the provision of information and advice, including budgetary literacy workshops.

And with the advent of the internet and the increasing pervasiveness of computers in homes and institutions, it is also likely that technology can give members of the public the rights and responsibilities to take part in some of the decisions traditionally dealt with through representative democracy.

It’s right that we review institutions designed for another age. Democracy needs a shake-up. But that has to be more than debating how we select the same few who rule, let alone the price of Parliamentary salads. Let’s open up the doors, break down the walls, allow the people in to our democracy. Let’s find new ways to harness the power of the British public to meet the needs of our time.


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