Democracy 2015 – The Independent’s new campaign

Summary

The play thing of London media types or something more substantial?

The former editor of The Independent Andreas Whittam Smith (AWS) kicked this off in early September with an article about broken democracy in the UK. He then followed it up with a ‘manifesto’ for a project to do something about it. Make of it what you will.

It is broke, but how do we fix it?

If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t be here.

Understandably there is a ‘something must be done’ feeling about the situation we are all in. But what and by whom? Over the past decade or so I’ve seen various attempts to either  politically crash Westminster or bypass it completely. Things like Stop the War‘s attempts in the early 2000s, Vanessa Redgrave’s Peace and Progress Party, the Respect Unity Coalition, the Coalition of Resistance, the National Health Action Party, to other movements at the opposite extremes, for example the Referendum Party of 1997, which benefited from up to £20million of James Goldsmith’s fortune. Then there’s the eternal debate as to whether people on ‘the left’ should stay within the Labour fold or move outside of it – such as to the Greens or the ‘structuralist’ far left.

All of which have made me go: “Meh – I’ll just stick with Puffles if that’s alright.” Yes I like discussing, debating and learning, but I don’t like being told what to think and then being expected to fall into line. Hence why tribal party politics is not for me.

Democracy2015 has something of a Jury Team 2010 feel to it. Big name, a bit of money, stand a few independent candidates…not that they were successful. When you look at aspirations 1-7 halfway down this article, the idea that within two-and-a-half years you can build a grassroots movement and political party capable of standing candidates in every constituency with a credible chance of being elected…exactly.

If a new political party is the solution, what is the problem?

The problems that AWS has highlighted may not be the problems or priorities that are in the minds of other people. As one response to AWS said:

Governing is hard – as one can see from the performance of those who try – but no-one should be naive enough to think it would all be fine if only ‘they’ would listen to ‘us.’

All of the movements I listed at the top all had a feel of ‘if only they would listen to us.’ In a world of saturation advertising, it is very difficult to get anyone to listen to you. Why should they? Getting people to listen to your message, let alone engage with it and respond to it is actually very difficult.

We have a problem with this cage – so we’re going to get ourselves locked in it

“My argument is X based on evidence Y therefore we must do Z” is the feel of the two articles by AWS. As any blogger will tell you, the moment you start doing that there is always someone with more time, energy, expertise and passion (or a mix of all these) who can unpick at least one of those things. They’ll unpick the evidence base, which means the argument is on shaky ground which means the proposed actions are less likely to achieve the desired effect. The information listed/requested in a-d already indicates that whatever AWS has planned, it looks, sounds and feels likes a standard political party – locking itself into the very cage he claims to be complaining about.

Why have you already frozen out – and even declared yourselves hostile to those that might want to help?

By effectively saying that the solution is a new political party, every other person who is a member of a political party will see this entire project as something that needs to be crushed – quickly. Even though the rest may be vaguely interested in solving the problem of the democratic deficit and associated symptoms, their parties’ constitutions will bar them from getting involved. It’s helping political opponents. They’ve also potentially frozen out those people who don’t want to be in political parties or are unable to participate because of their job or vocation.

Don’t expect your political opponents to stand still either

The Westminster political parties know there are huge issues with the democratic deficit, and have experimented with a whole host of different things – whether the open primaries for the Conservatives or the all-women shortlists for Labour. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. They will have activists on the ground, deeply embedded in local communities. Turning up into a community and expecting to overturn things in a matter of a couple of years is highly unlikely – & takes a set of circumstances unique to an area for it to succeed. One size does not fit all.

Are you people like me?

It’s one of the criticisms that’s thrown at the current Coalition, as well as some at the top of the Labour party. Yet when looking at the list of volunteers gathered for the launch (see end)…well, I’ll leave you to decide how representative a cross-section of society and income groups they represent. [Oi?!? What sort of a name is "Puffles"?!?!?!]

That’s not to say they are not nice people – I’m sure many of them are very personable and that I could spend an entire afternoon talking politics and things with them. But party politics isn’t about being nice – as others have commented. It’s one of the reasons why I try to comment from a safe distance and in a manner that won’t ruffle too many feathers. I’m not cut out for the rough and tumble of personal insults that unfortunately is par for the course.

So…should they all give up and go home?

Well…no.

So…what should they do?

Part of me is hesitant to use the phrase ‘should do’ but here are some thoughts:

They say Britain has got talent, don’t they? How about reaching out with eyes and ears first? This is the hardest part – because it involves engaging with complete strangers. Start with the basics – literally. Such as “What do you think about politics?” The answer that comes back could completely torpedo the solution of setting up a new political party – especially if the responses lead to further comments such as “We hate political parties”. It doesn’t really make sense to follow that up with “We’re about to set up something that you’ve just told us you hate – care to join?” Exactly.

The initial steps have to be an evidence-gathering exercise. Given that there are quite a number of young people involved in Democracy2015, getting them out and about on the ‘front line’ for me would be an essential step – especially after all of those years being institutionalised by the education system. Get out and about to community groups and grassroots charities, whether in their own neighbourhoods to other parts of the country where they otherwise have zero representation/coverage/volunteers. There are also organisations and charities already out there trying to reverse the democratic deficit. What learning can Democracy2015 gain from their work?

The responses and the analysis that emerge from those initial exercises should inform what sort of solutions they are looking for, for the problems they have identified. (My personal take is that such audiences need to be given the chance to unpick those problems for themselves, rather than being presented with a: “We’ve identified these problems, do you agree? We’ve identified these solutions, do you agree?” approach.)

To conclude?

Hearts are in the right place, but not sure nearly enough thinking and preparation has been done.

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15 Responses to Democracy 2015 – The Independent’s new campaign

  1. Aidan Phillips says:

    Fantastic critique here. I’ve been in touch with the movement since I was informed about it a few days ago and my initial approach was to critique it in much the same way as you have, picking apart their plans and highlighting the issues. However, I still feel that we should put some faith in their attempts, if their intentions are as good as they claim. Many movements with potential fail because cynical people refuse to believe that they, unlike others, will succeed in any shape or form, and their skepticism easily puts others off the idea. Maybe a little blind faith might help this attempt get off the ground; from then on its survival and success will depend upon whether it truly does have the merit and abilities to achieve its ends.

  2. Sarah Pennie says:

    I’m not at all sure that D2015 is addressing the right problems, particularly the corrosive influence of the Party system.
    It is easy enough to list what’s wrong of course, and at least D2015 has an idea how some of the deficiencies could be overcome, but I cannot share AWS’s optimism or wish to set up another Party to join in the same old nonsense.
    And, how can policies to run the country be reduced to sound-bite, twit-length or face book messages?
    And, how could he believe it possible to get 600 + potential candidates, with at least 600 different views, to agree on a set of policies in time for 2015? Before long they would all be fighting like cats in a sack – just like real politicians!
    I could go on . . .

    • Andy Campbell says:

      I think the idea is to dismantle the party political model in year one.
      IMHO the main issue with government today is it wants to control absolutely everything and that makes it far too big.
      For example, tax is a simple issue and a whole tax policy can be written on one sheet of A4.
      The KISS principle works at any level but its not in the political elite’s interests to simplify.

  3. James says:

    I found your blog in a search for a Democracy 2015 web site. Your comments seem common -sensible enough for me to a) not continue the search and b) look to you for future comments on current affairs etc.
    There are alot of journo interns listed in the D2015 opening bluster and although I agree with the sentiments expressed I fear that it might go the way of other digital attempts at creating momentum for political ‘change’.

  4. I remember seeing an advert where the independent were asking for interns for this project.
    E-mailed asking what the pay was an never got a reply!

    • cachaciero says:

      Is it not just that attitude that bedevils politics and politicians today? If you don’t have enough desire / enthusiasm /desperation to work for nothing to change the system then maybe best to just watch from the sidelines.

      • Damian Hockney says:

        One of the main problems with the system of unpaid interns is that you get a certain type of privileged youngster whose parents are probably essentially funding him or her to “get a career in the media”. They are all Lukes and Ollies and Bryonys. What has always surprised me about newspapers like The Guardian and Independent is that they make a great play about pay and conditions when it comes to anyone else, but are prepared to use what amounts to slave labour in their own operation – working class people or those without wealthy parents please do not apply….

  5. Pingback: What You Can Get Away With (Nick Barlow's blog) » Blog Archive » Worth Reading 64: Troughton to the power of Colin Baker

  6. After a couple of days thinking, I’ve concluded that Democracy 2015 is a well-meaning but bad plan.

    The negative comments about politicians and politics (not all of which are fair, by any means) will stick, but there is very little chance of them winning a significant number of seats, if any. So, the campaign will just increase public dissatisfaction with the system, and thus reduce turnouts/engagement even further.

    I hope I’m wrong.

  7. Andreas WHITTAM SMITH says:

    “Thank you for your assessment of Democracy 2015. You rightly advise us to start by gathering evidence and to get out and meet people. In the two days since launch, we have exchanged email messages with hundreds of people who have expressed interest in working with us. It is their concerns that will drive our policymaking exercise. I believe, by the way, that the quality of our discussions and the expertise that we shall be able to deploy will be quite the equal of those marshaled by the political parties. I don’t claim that this is unique quality that we alone possess but, rather, that it can be done if you set your mind to it.
    You also correctly observe that there are also organisations and charities already out there trying to reverse the democratic deficit. Indeed we have identified ten such bodies with which we shortly make contact.
    Finally, an invitation: please come round and meet us one day.

    • janosabel says:

      I wonder what progress has been made in last two moths?
      Also, to where can I come round to meet you—not in a public gathering where there is never enough time to home in to key, underlying issues?

  8. Pingback: Regarding Democracy 2015 «

  9. David Gillon says:

    It seems to me that we’re seeing corrective action in the formatiom of groups like Spartacus, and Disabled People Against The Cuts (which I’ve probably chosen as the ones I’m involved in), people who in the main have not been politically active campaigning on issues that are important to them, because those issues have been abandoned, or abused, by the supposedly mainstream parties. The problem then becomes that they’re unable to access the existing power structures that have ceased to represent them. Whether that means we need new parties, reform of the old parties, or reform of the old structures, I don’t know, I just know that none of the parliamentary parties adequately represent my beliefs or my needs.

    • janosabel says:

      Being against is not enough because the system just ignores the protests. These organizations have to show why austerity, for example, is not necessary. for that you just have to make use of research and evidence that exists: the work of Gar Alperowitz, for example or Fred Harrison “The Traumatized Society—How to Outlaw Cheating and Save our Civilization”, just to name two current authors. Plenty of other authors (Louis Kelso, for example, and earlier—”The Economy of Abundance”, Stuart Chase) have been publishing for decades).
      Instead of “inventing their own wheel” these organizations should function as amplifiers of available solutions, so that they form a voice other than the public media which is deaf and blind to these information resources.

    • janosabel says:

      “Corrective action”? Please, a systemic overhaul is needed because it is the outdated* nature of the system that generates an endless stream of problems jostling for “correction”.
      *Outdated because it can not adjust to the revolutionary changes which the industrial/scientific revolutions brought to our society.

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