Democractic reform: we still aren’t having the right discussion

May 26, 2009 by
Filed under: Politics, The RSA 

David Cameron’s lengthy Guardian essay about democratic reform is welcome, even if there isn’t much in it that is both new and a concrete commitment. As a long standing supporter of electoral reform, I also supported Alan Johnson’s call this weekend for a referendum on the day of the next General Election – indeed, I advocated exactly this policy in my blog a few days days earlier.

While it is important to debate the rules and procedures of politics I continue to believe that the bigger issue is the content of democratic discourse. My first RSA annual lecture, back in 2007, was about ‘pro-social strategy’. This is what I said:

The way we do politics not only reflects but reinforces a loss of confidence among citizens and communities about solving problems ourselves. The most disabling aspect of political discourse is the paradox (exploited by the news media) that Government is seen simultaneously as omnipotent and incompetent….

By creating a vibrant debate about common problems, aims and responsibilities,  pro-social strategy seeks to reinstate democratic politics as the process by which citizens give permission to their representatives to act on their behalf.

This shift in thinking is not simply about rolling back the state or taking politicians down a peg or two. The implications for government are not so much about its size but as about its ways of working. The implications for politics are not so much about politicians letting go as about citizens taking hold.’ Pro-social politics’ would not be seen in terms of conflict between us (citizens) and them (politicians). Politics would be about us and us and us.

‘Us’ because it would be about what we as citizens want to achieve and what we need to do to achieve it.

‘Us’ because it would be about recognising the different interests, views and resources of different parts of society and accepting the challenge of reconciling these differences rather than simply asserting our own demands and resenting any attempt by politicians to sort it out.

‘Us’ because this would be a process in which we would need to confront more fully the truth that we each of us have our own conflicting interests, views and aims. The apparent incompatibility of our own individual preferences is a growing characteristic of modern policy problems. For example, we want to fly cheaply and protect the planet, to see our children as home-owners but to protect the green spaces around our towns and cities……”

 As Ben Page from Ipsos-MORI often says ‘the British public demand Swedish welfare provision on American tax rates’. The real problem with politics is not the expenses claims of MPs, nor even the power of the Executive, it is that we are unable to have a grown up conversation about the challenges which politicians can only resolve if we work with them: notably, public spending restructuring, population ageing and climate change.

We the citizens are stuck in a bad place; increasingly unwilling to be governed but not yet willing to govern ourselves. Proposals for reform should be judged by whether they are likely to move us towards a more realistic and responsible  democratic discourse.



  • Matthew Cain

    The discussion may not be right but the solutions aren’t so far off.

    Some of the reasons why our political discourse is so distorted include the party focus on marginal seats; political party control over political engagement; party funding reliant on small numbers of large donors and too much centralisation at al tiers of politics.

    Reform of the electoral system, the party funding system and the balance of power across the UK would all help change the political discourse by changing how politics gets done.

    • matthewtaylor

      Agree. We have to address the content and the process of politics at the same time.

  • Mark Hanson

    This is a discussion that definitely needs to be had and fair play to David Cameron for taking part.

    We’re doing a lot of work in this area, which we’re happy to share. We’re actually taking part in a live online chat tomorrow afternoon at 12pm-130pm.

    Click here for more details – the more the merrier!

    • matthewtaylor

      Thanks Mark. Sorry I missed the chat. We’re having a debate here next week on electoral reform.

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  • Joe Nutt

    I can appreciate exactly what you are hoping for from the citizen side of this particular new deal Matthew, but I can’t imagine I’m alone in finding the idea that this particular ‘rump’ parliament would attempt to carry out any kind of reform before a general election has been held, utterly unthinkable…even insulting.

  • Working Class Tory

    Very good piece. This:- “We the citizens are stuck in a bad place; increasingly unwilling to be governed but not yet willing to govern ourselves” particularly resonated with me.

  • Stu

    It’s the mechanics of this discourse that interest me. How do politicians transmit their ideas? How do we reply? Through the distoring prism of the media? Do we do it directly through blogs?

    The only ever time I managed to have a conversation with a local councillor I voted for him. I was a young, impressionable a-level student about to go to uni to read PPE. He humoured my teenage ramblings and we had a proper discussion about why the Lib Dems are so focused on localism.

    How can we facilitate these conversations? Should I go through sites like if I do that I miss the personal interaction that’s so important in today’s atomised world.

    As ever, Matthew, you’re striking the ball in the right areas. You beg more questions, but that’s the beauty of it.