Political parties will not save us unless we save them first

I voted remain for two reasons; one is that I believe that we are better off as part of a bigger more connected Europe, two I cannot abide and will not stand for the racist and bigoted tone that parts of the leave campaign reached. Clearly not everyone agrees with me.

A referendum was always a blunt instrument to address a much more subtle problem and we have to accept that we have gotten a blunt result. Where do we go from here?

While the press obsesses about the implosion of the two main political parties they are missing the point. The internecine wars in two entrenched hierarchal power structures are not the starting point for a major change in our society. These structure are entirely focused on an increasingly outmoded 4th estate and have been singularly failing to engage with and listen to the public. They lack the tools and the will to stop talking and really listen and we have been seeing their slow decline for years*.  Their decline is bringing our democracy down with it.

The political system is operating in its Westminster bubble – but are the rest of us behaving any differently? While the mainstream media are covering various leadership contests my corner of the filter bubble** is talking about very different things:

  • Civic and democratic tech networks are all talking about building things
  • Social change and community development networks are trying to gather people together
  • Political junkies are directing and debating and pointing out where the mainstream analysis has gone wrong
  • Millions of people are trying to push the rewind button with a petition to try again
  • Friends and family are trying to work out how to stop shouting horrible things at each other

Everyone is talking about how to better listen to the people who have been left out of the national debate to such an extent as to have opened up a huge schism in our society but at the moment we are not even listening to each other.

And still the press is banging on about who has resigned now and who might end up running the show. We are now talking about party politics when we should be talking about how to fix this mess. Party politics is not going to save us unless it saves itself first.

The question is should we help it or do we need to look realistically at what the alternatives are? As a pragmatist and someone who wants to see democratic reform  I believe we have to help the party system change at pace if we want to see progress on democratic reform in the next 10 years.

Reforming party politics will take more rhetoric. Party infrastructure is built to face the media in preference to the public and is designed around a hierarchy which in the main part relies on establishment power. The change which is needed here is for this hierarchy to genuinely open itself to influence by its members and to take engagement beyond the passing of information in the same way that those of us outside of those structures need to open ourselves up to collaboration meaning more than an opportunity to persuade people to agree with you.

I believe that we deserve a better democratic conversation***  than we have currently and that that requires us to listen and engage with each other more effectively. This is not about how do we give or take power but how we lend or share power.

The party political system as it stands at the moment has no place in our future democracy – democracy for the network society can and should enable authentic and ongoing citizen engagement in decision making which results in action not rhetoric.  We have to strive for this if we want to reduce and not grow the divisions in our country. Party politics cannot not save us without savings itself first.

System change requires engagement with the system as it is right now because very few ideas or movements have the momentum to overwhelm the status quo permanently (Castells is really good on this).

As I see my different networks all convinced that they have the answer to what we should do next I ask them each to stop and listen and ask what part of the answer that they have. What areas are they uniquely qualified to answer and where do they know enough to work with someone who knows more? How can we help each other but also how can we help the reform current structures and organisations? Its about asking where is you goal best served by lending someone else your power and energy?

Our technology and the way in which we live our lives puts us in a filter bubble – we rarely put ourselves in a position where we encounter someone ‘other’. This is a huge part of the problem. However before we try and fix this lets look closer to home – are we really listening to the people around us let alone those who are different?

We are angry with the politicians and we should be because they have let us down by pursuing party politics rather than the best interests of the country. However we are modelling exactly the same behaviours if we don’t come together to make change happen and we carry on talking without listening.

Take a breath people – find someone who knows more than you about something you know is important and find out about it. Share your expertise. Connect to people adjacent but not in your field. Reach across divisions of skills and expertise as well as life experiences in order to build a coalition of real collaboration which will help shift this broken system.

* Interesting data on this from Parliament and also from the latest Hansard Audit of Political Engagement over the years – small resurgence since the last election but overall a downward trend.

** Worth reading Tom Sternberg’s facebook post on this

*** Lots of thoughts here on how to update democracy – meet the democracy stack

  1. Daniel Yeo

    June 27, 2016 at 9:21 am

    Thanks Catherine, totally 100% in agreement with you here. I’m trying to step back and take some time to reflect and think about where we go from here – but it’s surfacing several things that have been lurking in my mind for a while about how we make policy and what modern forms of democracy look like. Still processing but thought I’d share two things.
    1) a skeleton manifesto of what I think we’re trying to address and offering a constructive alternative
    2) some thoughts on mechanisms to do so

    I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    Your democracy stack appeals but I’m also interested in involving people who “don’t do politics” in co-creating solutions or at least stress testing them.

    More immediately, where do we go from here? I sense a moment and appetite – maybe something as simple as a hangout to just get the conversation flowing and connect people?

  2. David Wilcox (@davidwilcox)

    June 27, 2016 at 10:21 am

    Excellent! Practically, could we map the people people, ideas and expertise you mention, then start some network building? First step, a group of network builders. A hangout could be one of the methods. Glad to help if useful.

  3. nominally

    June 27, 2016 at 4:19 pm

    Does anyone recommend any govcamp type events coming up which might be a good forum for sharing and developing ideas?


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