The Crisis of Democracy in the UK
Assemblies for Democracy is a new organisation aiming to move towards real democracy in the UK. As a General Election approached, the group held inaugural assemblies in Glasgow, Manchester and London. They examined the ‘democracy question’: how the current system masquerades as democracy, the issues it sidelines and the potential for deliberative, not combative, debate. New Compass asked various organisers about their experiences.
How and why did Assemblies for Democracy get off the ground?
Answered by Paul (York/London)
Through a meeting in the Houses of Parliament hosted by John McDonnell MP and the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers. This led to a planning group with representatives of campaigns and individuals present. These included Occupy London, the Agreement of the People, the Republican Socialist Alliance, the National Community Activists' Network, the Institute of Race Relations and A World to Win. Individuals from Manchester and Wigan were on board and were joined by Unlock Democracy, openDemocracy and others.
The call-out said: “We believe the time is right to discuss the crisis in our democracy and put forward positive proposals that can take society forward. The rise of Ukip and far right parties around Europe reflect a growing alienation from the political process. Many are concerned that government is so aligned with business interests that the needs of ordinary people are often relegated into second place.”
We received a positive response because the Assemblies provided a space where for the first time ordinary people could discuss the limitations of present democracy and what we should aspire to. The emphasis was on diversity of views and proposals, rather than agreeing on a set strategy, combined with maximum discussion at the Assemblies. The positive response to the Assemblies held in London, Glasgow and Manchester showed that there is a real need to put the “democracy question” at the centre of our political discourse
What are your inspirations?
They are from our history and from the global movements for democracy that have arisen in recent years. In terms of history, we can draw on the early struggles for democracy and access to power such as the Great Revolt of 1381, the Levellers and the Agreement of the People debated at Putney in 1647, the radical movement of the late 18th, early 19th century, Chartists and Suffragettes and the campaigners who fought for political representation independent of the Liberals and Tories. In recent decades, we are inspired by the national liberation, anti-colonial movements, the throwing off of dictatorships in South America, the global movements for land justice, the Occupy movement and the opposition to corrupt states in Spain and other countries.
In an article on the assemblies, one of your supporters (Paul Feldman) says that “the Assemblies aim to go beyond the traditional party-political approach? How are they doing this?
The Assemblies that took place this spring in the run-up to the General Election did not make the election an issue for discussion, except in so far as the real issues were being sidestepped by political manoeuvring. The aim of the Assemblies was to transcend party politics by delving deeper into the underlying political process. This was achieved by including issues about the state and state power on the Assembly agendas.
For example, in London, historian Peter Evans questioned whether representative democracy (based as it is on political parties) was exhausted as a phenomenon. This led to a discussion about where we go from here in taking democracy forward. Another working group invited people to discuss the idea of an Agreement of the People for the 21st century. In Manchester, all the keynote speakers talked about the crisis of democracy from different standpoints and the working groups developed their presentations.
In the Manchester assembly, there was a session on ‘themes for investigation’. This seems an echo of what the writer Dan Hind has been talking about. Do you see one of the aims of the Assemblies to be an investigation and a publicising of what is actually happening in society, (in, for example, the economy or corruption or who really makes the important decisions), as opposed to the increasingly misleading myths of the mainstream media?
Hopefully, yes. A concrete example of this is a workshop held at the recent Assembly in London. Participants raised concerns over the City of London’s role in wielding power over the UK. No mainstream media outlet would dare shine a light on this shadowy realm. Other issues of corruption and cover-ups were also raised. The most obvious example is what has been revealed in the past year or so by survivors of organised child abuse. Media reports have proliferated with allegations of a Westminster paedophile ring. There has even been some acknowledgement of the extent to which state apparatus has been brought into play in order to protect and enable the perpetrators. At the same time, mainstream media outlets have avoided launching a concerted campaign that would publicise “what is actually happening in society”. In terms of justice being served, no one going to prison for fraud or child abuse. Assemblies for Democracy bring a diverse range of individuals together to air concerns and make their voices heard. Collectively, an attempt can be made to investigate and publicise misuse of power.
Do you see a democratic media/democratic journalism as important tools for real social change?
The process of democracy and real social change are interconnected. The society we were promised was based on the notion of four pillars of democracy: executive, legislature, judiciary and free press. That fails because it assumes that democracy can be delivered as working set of components that will be self-sustaining and can avoid corruption or drift from fitness for purpose. The pillars need to be re-framed and the people's most direct tool falls back to its historical roots, the process of assembly. When people are reporting their fears for the future and trying to prevent suffering, that doesn't appeal to a media that hungers for sensationalism of tragedy or shock. A real democratic media committed to reporting the lives and experience of the community needs to arise to fill that gap.
We’ve had great help from writers who have opened a democratic space in the wider discourse. Organisations and platforms like openDemocracy, GlobalNet21, A World To Win and Red Pepper have provided platforms for communication, publishing articles on the views and experiences of Assemblies for Democracy and given time to share advice and insights. Using Twitter helped us reach out and keep the campaign live. Real social change will be brought about by people who feel the confidence and empowerment when they see they are not alone. Democratic media and journalism – buoyed up by social media – can carry that message to more people. It can help people come together when it reports what they are doing, raises awareness of problems and, above all, shows them how to get involved. The best solutions will come from a collective effort rather than a single source. Our challenge to the journalists who would forge our future democratic media would be what will your role in creating inclusive discussion be?
What are your ambitions in the short to medium term?
The short term goals need to be directed by the reality of the tasks to be done, in the conditions faced. The election brings the democratic discussion temporarily to the foreground, but for us it is apparent it will lead to an unsatisfactory answer made sellable by soundbite promises that will be ignored when the time comes to devolve power. This has happened in Scotland and is in the process of happening in Greater Manchester Devolution Agreement. This is the backdrop reality of the conditions we face. We have to appreciate how that affects all the people we are trying to include in a democratic process. Our short term response will be building the groups to take forward the next Assemblies, planning groups will be made stronger by making them broader, more diverse and larger. We will have to use the process of democratic assembly we advocate to learn how to create the next development of true democratic space. So in the short to medium term seeing the work needing to be done completed is the ambition. We hope to see larger, more inclusive, planning groups in London, Glasgow and Manchester, support the planning groups forming in Wales, Ireland and the North East and getting more engagement on the internet to create the online democratic space that helps us overcome the barriers of distance, time, cost and the utter lack of interest from the system that masquerades as democracy.
The working groups at your Assemblies are encouraged to meet afterwards and set up networks of Assemblies wherever they live. Is this happening?
The Assemblies were really quite experimental as it was the first time for most people there, and it takes time to set up such networks – and become skilled in the exercise of real democratic discussion, planning and strategising. So far, the most positive outcome has been plans for Assemblies in Wales, Ireland and Yorkshire. We hope to help people get together with others locally as well meet again in working groups on particular themes. The idea of a strategy group with participants from all the nations in the British islands has been proposed. Occupy Democracy, which is currently in the midst of an amazing 10-day action outside Parliament, has invited Assemblies and the Democratic Reform Party to hold a discussion on the theme of a Peoples’ Assembly for a Citizens Constitution on 10 May, after the General Election.
Your aim is to welcome different standpoints, a place for reformers and revolutionaries. So the Assemblies can have contrasting views, you don’t want uniformity?
Your description is spot on! Assemblies offer a forum for democracy in action – for people to listen to and develop ideas, and find ways of putting them into practice. Those ideas include a wide spectrum of views. Many, probably most, people believe or hope that the existing system can be reformed, or that only some aspects need to be changed, such as the financial system. Others believe that a revolutionary approach is needed – that Assemblies can challenge the existing state and transfer power into democratic bodies of people locally, nationally and internationally.
But Assemblies needn’t worry about reaching agreement or even consensus. They should be about diversity. Different approaches to the big issues are vital. Assemblies should welcome them. We need to listen, think about, argue and learn even if we don’t agree. We should welcome different points of view – apart from racist, sexist or fascist ones.
What do you think of the UK General Election campaign?
Elections are fought not on the doorstep but on mainstream media outlets. Unfortunately, broadcasters and journalists are not concerned with democracy. Instead they luxuriate in an orgy of punditry and spin. What we end up with is a self-perpetuating elite of commentators and politicos who talk rings around each other whilst failing to hold anyone to account. Our politicians should be held to account on a daily basis because democracy is for every day not once every five years.
Sadly, “reflexive impotence” characterises the British young in particular. More than political apathy, it is an unstated worldview that equates with pathological states of depression. There was very little in the campaign to inspire or edify. There was very little honesty. This could explain the disturbing popularity of figures such as Nigel Farage. His appeal confirms that there is a need for questions to be answered in detail. However no politician in the current system can risk an honest appraisal of any of the dilemmas we face. There is no room for comprehensive deliberations because the combative nature of debate in British society does not make room for the collaborative nature of contemporary democracy. This leaves us with an election campaign that appeals to the narcissists amongst us. There is a real possibility that whoever has the shiniest suit will win.
Occupy in the US and elsewhere has had an undoubted influence, but has not proved to be an enduring presence. Do you have hope the Assemblies will possess more persistence? If so, why will they be different?
Occupy has not gone away; those movements have been negated into other organisations and approaches. Occupy was mainly targeted at the banks and those responsible for the crash of 2008. It viewed the crash apolitically, to some extent, separating finance capitalism off from politics. Some of the energy from that movement has now been moved into politics of different kinds, not surprisingly. The bankers and corporations don’t rule us directly after all – they do it through states and governments. In the case of Spain, an actual new political party, Podemos, came out of the May 15 movement. It is no accident that there were speakers from Podemos at Manchester and Glasgow.
The Real Democracy Working Group came out of Occupy LSX was amongst the initiators of the Agreement of the People for the 21st Century campaign. That in turn helped to found Assemblies for Democracy. Glasgow Peoples Assemblies came out of Occupy Glasgow and many of those involved are now working to develop Assemblies for Democracy. Many organisations focused on democracy have emerged since that time as well – Occupy Democracy, Open Democracy and so on – and they too are involved in the Assemblies. This is a continuum of people and organisations who have grasped the fact that our democratic process has been replaced by a corporatocracy.
Is there evidence that ordinary people are getting involved in the Assemblies or are they just concentrations of many different activists?
Today’s ordinary person is tomorrow’s activist. For example some of the people at the Glasgow Assembly are involved in the fight against fracking in their local area. Because of that involvement they have seen the need to look at the wider issue of democracy. Nothing demonstrates the absence of democracy more clearly than the drive to frack Britain. Another group of people who have been really attracted by the Assembly idea are those who are involved in grassroots work in communities. I am sure that is because they are constantly grappling with top-down bureaucracies and the powerlessness of communities to make the decisions that matter. That means they understand that we are in a fight for greater democratic control by ordinary people.
What you think of the general election result, given that a majority Conservative government was so unexpected. How will Assemblies for Democracy will respond to this situation?
The General Election result has brought a range of constitutional questions into the foreground. A majority government was elected with under 25% of those entitled to vote, which is hardly fair or democratic. So there’s a clamour for a more equitable voting system. Scotland voted overwhelmingly against austerity but these aspirations look likely to be thwarted. This will intensify Scottish voters’ desire for more democracy through independence. In sum, there is a growing constitutional impasse and a sense that the political system is broken. Assemblies for Democracy will use this opportunity to work on new ideas and a transition to a more advanced, even real, democracy