Representative democracy – the best form of government yet devised

I’m following up on my last post (on Alexander Hamilton and the Federalist Papers) with another on broadly the same subject – representative democracy.

It is fundamental to our future.

Hamilton had a nascent Congress in mind, we have the House of Commons. Always a problem, now more than ever, is how ordinary folk connect with elected, representative assemblies. Not least in our own time, when the House of Commons is widely seen as both distant and corrupt. And ineffective.

Deliberative democracy, in the form of citizens’ assemblies, chosen rather than elected, is often suggested as a way of feeding in a wider range of opinions, and involving people more directly. How would they work? To quote the RSA (Royal Society of Arts) on the subject:

Much like a jury in a court case. You might have between twenty and a hundred people representing a cross section sample of the population. They spend three or four days hearing prepared evidence from all sides on a specific topic – it could be anything from abortion reform to public spending priorities. This is followed by questioning, investigation and debate. The group then comes up with recommendations, usually based on consensus.

I’m a big supporter of the RSA. But I’m cautious in this case. Just as parliament is swayed by factions, so too will be assemblies.  The criteria by which members of such assemblies will be selected will cause division, before they even meet. And strong personalities will as ever emerge and dominate. There may be a requirement to debate at a parliamentary level, but none to enact.

The one recent example of a positive outcome from a deliberative assembly was the Irish constitutional convention, which recommended action on same-sex marriage, abortion and blasphemy. These were then enacted following referenda and legislation.  This is legislation that would probably, not certainly, have been enacted in any case. The assembly facilitated the process.

Helpful on the subject is the article, ‘Pot-luck democracy’, in the Prospect December 2019 issue, which highlights the assembly, or ‘fixed council’, which is being trialled in Ostbelgien, a Belgian province.

Assemblies do have a role, and let’s trial then further. But the danger is they could be a distraction. We must look elsewhere if we want to achieve a significant re-engagement of the public with everyday politics.

Better to focus on how the wider population can best feed into existing structures.

A high priority must be to re-invigorate local government. One of Margaret Thatcher’s legacies is a switch of authority and finance away from local to central government. The respect in which local government is held, and the calibre of people drawn to it, have suffered significantly as a result. City mayors and the Northern Powerhouse are much quoted as ways forward, but real democratic progress requires a much greater devolution of power, with local people taking ownership of education, health and social care and transport in ways that are impossible now.

The pathways that link local and central government will need to be much closer. Local councils should be a useful training ground for politicians with aspirations at a parliamentary level. And closer links to local authorities would, almost literally, bring MPs with, maybe, delusions of grandeur down to earth.

When local people bring issues which are best handled at a local level to MPs’ surgeries, that shouldn’t be a problem. MPs and councils would be used to working in tandem. And MPs in turn would be available to discuss the impact of national issues at a local level.

With local and central government more closely linked it might well be easier to accept and understand the benefits of supranational authority. We need to be key players, on the inside, rather than lobbyists, on the outside. A narrow definition of sovereignty is categorically not in our interest.

A European parliament with local electorates fully engaged should function as a direct means of holding the councils and committees of Europe to account.  That has always been the idea – but in the UK especially strident voices in the press have made this all but impossible.

There’s the rub. How do you make the case for representative democracy at all levels when populism is so stridently funded?

First and foremost – argue the cause. In any and all public forums. Not for the old and tired status quo. But for an active and engaged system of connected representation. One where people feel they are actually represented, and not taken for granted.

I’ve not spelt out any detail here. The purpose of this post is simply to put the argument for our existing system(s) of government. We have the most remarkable instrument of government ever designed anywhere on earth in Westminster, and a parallel structure at a local level which likewise has evolved over centuries.

Energising those structures is where our focus should lie.

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