MPs can’t just defend democracy in this crisis, they must deepen it too

August 28, 2019   By Adam Lent, Director, NLGN

Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings have got MPs exactly where they want them: defending Parliament. They may cast this right now as a battle between an executive that wants to deliver on the referendum result and a legislature that wants to stymie it but soon the rhetoric will morph. It will become a fight between ordinary people and a self-interested, out-of-touch, Westminster elite. This worked in the referendum campaign and the No-Dealers are betting on the fact that it will work again in a General Election.

Leaving aside how extraordinarily dangerous this tactic is for the future of British democracy, it is very smart for one overriding reason: the population agree with the sentiment. Just a few months ago, The Hansard Society’s regular audit of political engagement found confidence in Westminster at an all-time low. Strikingly, 47% of the population now believe they have no influence over national decision-making – not some or a little influence: none!

This is hardly news however. When I was Research Director for the Power Inquiry back in 2004/5, we found exactly the same attitudes. This deep alienation has drifted on for years unaddressed.

As Jessica Studdert and I outlined in The Community Paradigm, the fundamental problem is a system built around paternalistic values. This culture is in direct conflict with a population that wants much more influence over the big decisions – even to the extent of being directly involved in implementing those decisions. That paternalistic culture infuses every part of our governance from Cabinet to Parliament and from Whitehall to councils as well as a plethora of public sector bodies.

MPs would do very well to keep this in mind. Of course, they must defend parliamentary democracy against creeping authoritarianism but they must also be aware that they are defending a broken system that has lost the faith of the people. There is a vital need here to reinvigorate parliamentary democracy by using the deliberative and participatory methods of engagement increasingly being used at local level by councils. MPs could pledge to use those methods to build consensus and understand what their constituents really want ahead of big parliamentary decisions. Maybe the House of Lords could be replaced by a permanent citizens’ assembly chosen annually. Sounds radical but fundamental challenges require radical solutions.

Paternalistic cultures that have shaped the public sector for seven decades also need to be transformed by embracing the radical experiments in participation and collaboration outlined in The Community Paradigm. After all, it is millions of micro-decisions taken at this level that have just as significant impact on people’s lives as those taken in Parliament.

In short, MPs’ guiding principle should be “defend and deepen”. This is not only good tactically given how this battle will be painted by No.10 but is also absolutely necessary for the survival of democracy. As a start, MPs should consider adding extra words to their Church House Declaration that make it clear they are at least aware of the widespread frustration with parliamentary democracy as it is currently practiced and want to address it.

The truth is this fight has not come out of nowhere. It reflects a deeper malaise that has undermined British democracy for many years. Now is the time to protect long-established institutions and norms but also to reform them in a way that reflects the values of citizens today.


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