By Dan Jellinek, author of People Power: A user’s guide to democracy in the UK
We live in times of huge negativity about politics. When conversations between friends, family or colleagues turn to any issue relating to the government, MPs, councillors or town halls, we hear our government is no different from that of China, or the former East Germany. Politicians are incompetent; intrusive; absurd; or on the fiddle.
At a time when so many billions of people worldwide are struggling desperately to win the wide range of democratic freedoms that people in the UK seem to mostly take for granted, can this outlook be justified?
Politicians will always inspire anger in some quarters. They are elected to take decisions, and decisions can never please everybody.
With a subject like press regulation, some people would prefer very light control; others strong. No politician could comply with both views. Democracy is designed to allow an open debate on issues such as these; the right to protest against decisions perceived to be mistaken; the independent enforcement of any laws passed; and ultimately, the right to decide whether or not to re-elect a politician or government which has acted in a certain way. And yet for every debate such as this, the general view seems to be that debate is not open; corporate influences trump public opinion; and politicians are unable or unwilling to take the right steps to sort it all out.
This leads to people’s anger being aimed at the democratic system itself, with surveys showing that disengagement with democracy – as measured by benchmarks such as voter turnout or membership of political parties – is still on the rise.
This should be a cause of huge concern for everyone who believes in a fair, free society – or a society that is as fair and free as possible – because democracy has been proven time and again to be far and away the freest political system that exists. It is far from the solution to all social problems, but it is best place to start solving the ones that can be solved. Any criticism levelled against our system can be levelled ten-fold against undemocratic systems, from abuse of power by politicians to corporate influence. Churchill was right when he said democracy is “the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
It follows that the best course of action is not to attack our system, but to appreciate its best parts, and try to improve the parts that are not so good, in as positive a way as possible.
To break the negative spiral of low esteem for politicians and low esteem for the system, the only answer is for individuals to feel they are a bigger part of the system, by taking their own active steps to become more engaged with it.
Starting local is one key: the same surveys that show people’s disengagement from politics always show that people feel they are closer to, and can have more effect on local and community decisions than national decisions.
By volunteering for community organisations, helping the work of campaign groups including open debate with local politicians, or entering politics themselves, ‘us and them’ moves closer to the ‘us and us’ needed to overcome negativity.
Another step in trying to change things for the better must be to try to understand more deeply how they work now, and that is where my new book ‘People power: a user’s guide to democracy’ is intended to help in some small, neutral and non-partisan way. Piece by piece, it looks at the components of our democracy, from elections to devolution, and local government to the freedom of the press; and how we can try to change things for the better.
More broadly, this means improving our schools’ citizenship education – teaching children about how our democratic society works, from as young an age as possible.
‘Citizenship’ is already a core curriculum subject in secondary schools in England (age 11–16), and an optional subject in primary schools (age 5–11). Citizenship Studies is also available at GCSE and A-Level. Elsewhere in the UK the position varies, with Citizenship taught either as a cross-curriculum theme spanning several subjects (the basis in Scotland) or as part of a wider topic such as Personal and Social Education (as in Wales, and there is something similar in Northern Ireland).
But its position in the curriculum is not high enough. For an issue that is so vital to the future health of our society, it needs to be viewed both as a subject in its own right and one which cuts across all other aspects of the curriculum, just like literacy and numeracy. It should also become a core subject from a younger age.
Democratic institutions must undergo reform, too, to ensure they are as close as possible to the communities they serve.
For one thing, they must become more representative: if there were more women, people from minority ethnic communities and people with disabilities in political office or positions of public leadership, more ordinary citizens would feel there was a place for people like them in politics and public service. Currently, these and many other groups of people are under-represented both in appointments to the boards of public bodies and in elected office. Disabled people, for example, make up only around 8 per cent of appointments to public boards, even though 14 per cent of the working-age population are disabled.
Support and training for potential candidates, job-sharing or flexible working could all help to redress the balance, and again, these kinds of actions must be made a much higher priority.
The need for action is urgent, and the time for action is now. There must be a cross-party push to improve British people’s understanding of how our political system works; how it has developed; why it is precious; and how everyone can get involved, if only in a small way, to strengthen and improve it. The alternative – more disengagement – is damaging not just to our own society but to a world more open to the possibilities of global democracy then it has ever been.
About Dan Jellinek:
After reading English Literature at Cambridge University, Dan became a journalist writing about the internet and other emerging technologies, and their effect on society, for publications including the Guardian and BBC Online. In 2001 he was co-founder of VoxPolitics, the UK’s first think-tank tracking the use of new technologies in political campaigning. This work led to Dan being voted in 2004 among the top 10 people worldwide having an impact on the way the internet is changing politics, at the World eDemocracy Forum in Paris. From 2006-11, Dan worked for the Parliamentary IT Committee (PITCOM), briefing MPs and Peers on key policy issues such as the role of the Internet in the Arab Spring. From 2006-09 he was on the international board of E-Democracy.Org, a charity boosting democratic participation using information networks. He is co-founder of Headstar, a publishing house specialising in technology and social issues.
Dan’s new book “People Power: A user’s guide to democracy in the UK” is published by Transworld (ISBN-13: 978-0593070505).