Politics or democracy?

My dog is sad because of the current state of political culture

Image:  My dog is sad because of the state of political culture.

Happy new year everyone!  This is by way of a new years resolution post….

Given the fact the election campaigns all seem to have kicked off I thought it would be a good moment to capture some thoughts about the difference between politics and democracy. These have been moved along by having just finished Matthew Flinders excellent book “Defending Politics: Why Democracy Matters in the 21st Century” which I would recommend. I am in the middle of writing up my notes on the book and will put there up here when I am done.

As it says on the tin, Flinders makes a plea for us to stop treating democratic politics as a spectator sport:

Democratic politics is a voluntary and collective activity and people should be encouraged to join in (by voting, participating, volunteering, observing or generally cultivating some level of political understanding) but if individuals do not, they have to some extent given up on their right to criticize it. Politics is not a spectator sport. It is not a game you can decide to play or not. It is, however, a game that demands a continuous civic conversation about how we live together and what we want to accomplish. There is nothing democratic politics cannot achieve, but shaping our future and replacing the ‘politics of pessimism’ with ‘a politics of optimism’ will require that we all start facing up to our civic responsibilities. Let me state just one more time that if politics is failing, we are all to some degree complicit.(location 3660)

There is lots of interest in the book but I was really struck by the phrase ‘democratic politics’. I have got myself into the habit of thinking about democracy and politics separately – when asked I will often say that I am a huge fan of democracy but rather less keen on politics. However I have a growing realisation that separating these two vital concepts makes me, in a left leaning liberal intellectual kind of way, complicit in what Flinders is talking about as the failing of politics.

Politics is about the exercise of power, democracy is the context in which this happens. Its a context which, when working properly, constrains political actors to a particular set of behaviours and values. A lot of my work has been focused on the stresses and strains which the emergence of the network society is putting on our democratic system but the operation of politics within this system is equally strained.

The fact that political parties membership and participation is in a state of long term decline, the ever decreasing trust which we have in politicians and the way in which the media are focused on amplifying the kind of attack politics which drives people away are all failures of politics and not democracy. You can argue for systemic interventions such as electoral reform or the creation of digital civic spaces which make more balanced debate more likely but the behaviours within the framework of democracy are set by the political culture as much as the democratic context.

Do I really dislike politics?

Well probably not – I think its important that we have a values led debate about how best to manage our resources and create the best possible future for the country – the definition of what best is being the biggest political question of them all. It can be argued that those politicians are trapped in their behaviours by the twin pressures of a public that aren’t willing to accept that democratic decision making requires messy compromise and a media that insists that changing your mind is a weakness. Whatever the circumstances I, in common with so many people, feel alienated from the political culture which I see in the media and represented at its nadir – for me – of prime ministers question time (more on that in this report from the Hansard Society here).

Can’t we do better? And what would better look like?

One of the things which I will be playing close attention to in the run up to the general election is the behaviour of political parties as distinct from the behaviour of individual politicians. I believe that they have a role to play in what ‘better’ looks like and part of that is to create a more networked and less hierarchical relationship with the public – to listen more effectively and to involve people at an earlier stage in deciding on commitments. Is this a naive hope or an unrealistic expectation? I don’t think so – if a more digital democracy has to potential to change anything its with respect to real time access to better data from the public sphere (as long as its not creepy – more on that here). The question is not whether the technology is possible but whether a political party would be willing to trade the arguably weak control they have over their agenda setting now for something which is more open and collaborative. History would suggest the answer is no – lets hope we are proved wrong.

What can we do about it?

The months before a general election is probably not the right time for a mainstream party to start overhauling its social contract – they will all be too focused on the old world. This is true even with the now widened definition of what a mainstream party. What is going to be interesting in the coming months is whether new parties and independent candidates get the same kind of traction which independents saw in the PCC elections a couple of years ago. I have seen a few about but will be tracking these over the next few months.

How will this make me less of a spectator? Where I work with local politicians I often see people working effectively across party lines and I believe that a more collaborative and respectful political culture is possible. To make it happen will need work though and part of that work is showing how doing things differently can be effective. So, my task in the run up to the election is to gather data about people doing things differently and to see what we can learn from this. There will be lots of analysis of the way in which main stream parties are using social media but my fear is that whatever the hype about this being the election where social media makes a difference (its like groundhog day) its going to be the same story of spin and control – I think the real change is happening at the edges.

I think we need to start getting serious about electoral reform if we want our democracy to evolve into something which is fit for purpose in the 21st Century. However this reform will inevitably be a political process and that is not a bad thing. Changing our political culture is a related but separate challenge and this is where we have the potential to have an effect over the next few months. We can call candidates out on bad behaviour, we can refuse to engage with stories which are basically personal attacks – we can respond to the behaviours which we want to see more of not to the negative behaviours that are turning people away from democratic politics. If you are reading this blog the chances are you are already someone who is politically engaged – but are you actively engaged? This election is clearly going to be tight and there are huge challenges to be addressed – lets not be spectators in this process.

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