CHAPTER – this is the fourth ‘scratch’ piece of text for a book called Everyday Uses for Creativity in Public Life – Feb 1st 2020
This is a story about the general election and a search for a different kind of democracy. (Contains strong language)
The scene is a house in Devon – Election night – Thursday December 12th 2019
Me switching off election coverage and going to bed:
Me waking up on 13th:
Me on 14th:
And so on.
How to get in a Christmassy mood eh?
It seemed entirely apt that by the time Christmas Eve arrived my entire family was vomiting.
Worse still, I wasn’t – which meant I got to clear up other people’s. All whilst experiencing increasing panic about the faintest vomity feeling.
Waiting for vomit. Merry Christmas.
As it turned out, I didn’t even get my own barf for Christmas.
Just other people’s.
But I did manage to nurture my ability to wallow in melancholy.
The drum of the washing machine revolved and reverberated with the latest round of spew-filled bed sheets. It seemed to say “wal-low, wal-low”.
I began to look ahead to 2020 and think about a new government who I oppose. (Did you get that I didn’t vote Tory?) I began to list all the bad stuff which might happen. As if naming the bad stuff would somehow make it better.
- Like the introduction of voter ID to further disenfranchise vulnerable people
- Redrawing constituency boundaries in time to stitch up the next election
- Not forgetting attempts to restrict the powers of judicial review so that inconvenient legal facts don’t get in the way
- The escalation of a culture war attacking liberal institutions and values – probably starting with the break-up of the BBC
- And let’s throw in an ever more ideological approach to education for good measure
Just when I thought I might be running out of misery, something would be reported on the radio and I would embark on a whole new cycle of despair.
“Iain Duncan Smith has been knighted”
Not IDS. You have to be kidding?…ah yes, of course, there will also be:
- a renewed effort to discredit and dismantle the welfare state; probably so that more people can’t face living with endless assessments and suspicion and simply curl up and die
OK. I really need to stop this now. It’s not healthy.
“Members of ”Britain First” are trying to join the Tory party en masse”
Is this shit even real? Now I need to add:
- The hostile environment 2.0; disregarding the rights of children to be reunited with their families, increasing deportations and emboldening hate speech
This is beginning to feel apocalyptic.
“Australia is on fire”.
Oh mother. Well while we’re at it, let’s not forget:
- A complete and catastrophic failure to deal with climate change
Oh dear, we’re are all going to die aren’t we? And what’s more is that in a climate of post-truth politics, forged on an industrial scale by this new government, we won’t even realise we are dying.
When our eyes begin to close and we sink lifelessly to the ground we’ll just hear Michael Gove’s voice over the tannoy telling us not to worry because it’s perfectly normal for people to go to sleep FOREVER at this time of day.
HAPPY NEW DECADE EVERYONE!
To be honest, reaching January felt like an achievement in itself. Life is feeling more and more like an episode of Years and Years.
When it first broadcast in 2019 I loved this TV series; I thought it was a witty, searing socio-political masterpiece. Not so much now I’m in it.
If you saw the series you may remember the Grandmother’s speech in the final episode? (If you follow the link it’s page 13.) The family is having lunch round the dining room table and Muriel reflects on the mess the world is in. She looks at her family and surprises us all by declaring “It’s all your fault”.
She pins the responsibility for what’s gone wrong on every single one of us. She doesn’t refer to party politics, elections or voting; she talks about the changes which have happened around us in our everyday lives; changes which illustrate the decreasing value we all place on the lives and welfare of our fellow human beings.
Muriel makes the case that we are all complicit because we have let the changes happen, because we haven’t protected our fellow human beings and because, quite simply, we would rather not think about it. And of course she is right. Her speech is a perfectly executed punch in the solar-plexus. “It’s our fault. This is the world we built. Congratulations. Cheers all.”
Surely, what this decade needs is a political movement to counteract the forces of right-wing populism?…to ensure that we don’t go all Years and Years. Surely we need a political party that doesn’t just seek power by playing to people’s fears but by presenting a positive vision? Surely we need leadership which presents a strikingly alternative version of the future? That’s what we need! That will wipe the floor with these populist shit-stirrers.
Oh hang on a minute, didn’t the Labour party just try that? And got absolutely mullered? Crikey. This is all worse than I thought.
When I look back over the recent election campaign there have been plenty of moments when it feels like our democratic system is broken. Not just the failure of leaders to engage in political debate. Not just because of the fights about media bias. And not just because my side lost. But more personally – because of the way I have behaved during the campaign.
Listen, this is an embarrassing thing to admit but when I reflect on my behaviour during the election it is a catalogue of childish delinquency. I can’t escape the fact that the main blame for this is down to my own juvenile character. But I think it also speaks to the dysfunctional nature of our democratic process.
Our current approach to elections is a binary, yes/no, win/lose shit-show. This approach encourages spectacularly competitive and tribal behaviour. One of the most common complaints about our politics is the conduct of MPs in the House of Commons, say during Prime Minister’s Questions. MPs lob abuse at each other to score points and shame each other. But during a general election campaign we can all join in and behave like numpties for a few weeks; putting to one side decent conduct and rational debate in favour of winning the election at all costs.
During this campaign I have fully participated. Like a hot-headed football fan in the run up to the biggest game of the season, I have been shouting at journalists on the radio and TV, I have been living in my own supporter’s echo chamber on Twitter and even sentimentally weeping at campaign videos which celebrate my own team’s values.
I have even caught myself giving absurd V-signs to posters belonging to the opposing team. I see the blue background of the poster, softly overlaid with a bearded white bloke who smiles at me. He reeks of smug comfort. Something explodes in the front of my head making my arm shoot out, stabbing two fingers in the direction of the candidate’s mendacious fuck-face. “FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK OFF”.
No one sees me. It’s truly pathetic. Am I really this person?
But it gets worse on social media.
Ha, your leader can’t look at a child on a hospital floor. This is obviously because he’s a heartless wanker. Look at him failing to be a human being. Ha. Yes, that’s right, swallow this finely crafted social media post which illustrates just how how monstrous your guy really is.
While I am playing my part, spreading rage, I fail to note that I don’t find anything out about the kid on the floor. I couldn’t tell you his name or hometown or even why he was in hospital. But look everyone, that heartless wanker is not fit for office. We’ve been saying it all along and here’s the proof we’ve all been looking for. Vote Labour!
Next up, I become a self-righteous emotional wreck.
I sit in tears after reading a hand-written poster that’s doing the rounds. It says “THINK OF THE MOST VULNERABLE PERSON YOU KNOW, and VOTE IN THEIR BEST INTERESTS”. Sitting next to a Vote Labour sign. I cry because there are so many people who need more support and because I know Labour is going to lose.
But do I actually think of the most vulnerable person I know? Do I bother to get in touch with them to see if they’re OK? No, of course I don’t. Muriel was right. I just carry on weeping because my side will be defeated.
In the days after the election my timeline is flooded with determined and optimistic ideas for electoral reform: from an independent fact checking service to reducing the age for voting to 16 to proportional representation. But each suggestion only serves to make me feel more sad. Because in our winner-takes-it-all system why would any victorious government, with a full-fat majority, do anything to give away the power that they have just won?
Increasingly, our party political and ‘first past the post’ democratic system looks and sounds like a broken old machine. As it groaned and creaked its way through the election campaign it felt like relic of an industrial age: using up a huge amount of energy and causing collateral damage along the way. The democratic processes we use generate anger, competition and loathing. They do not encourage us to better understand one another or to nurture collaboration. See the 2016 referendum for another car-crash democratic process which has torn friends, families and communities apart; regardless of which side of the argument you are on.
What are our these ailing democratic processes helping us to achieve? Because perhaps all this pain is worth it if we are making our world a significantly better place? So in our current system, with an election every few years, what long-term issues have we truly addressed in recent decades? Climate change? The future of our health service? Legislating for the role of technology in our lives? Hmm. The truth is that our competitive democratic system fails us when it comes to dealing with the big issues. Because the big challenges we face, of course, require collaboration across society (not party based tribalism) and a long-term view of change (not with one eye on the next election clinging to power).
Objectively, if you accept that the above video, created with data from some of the world’s leading scientists, is even close to being right, then it is reasonable to expect that this will dominate your most significant democratic event. Instead, I, and millions of others, spent much of the 2019 election campaign sharing videos about how much we thought the other team were shite.
But there is hope.
As an avid watcher of TV political debates (largely so I can behave like an idiot, as described) I have noticed something significant happening over the last few years. There is one idea which is certain to get almost every person in any audience to come together in agreement. It has come up a lot with regard to Brexit. But it also crops up in relation to climate change, knife-crime, our health service and so on.
The simple idea is that MPs of different parties should sit down and work together. It never fails to bring everyone in the audience to applause. People are desperate for progress and change. Of course it’s easier to tell people to sit down and talk with each other than it is to actually do it. But I think this shows that there is a palpable desire for a different kind of politics and that means a different kind of process. One that nurtures collaboration. The architecture of our current democratic processes will always bring us back to competition and conflict ahead of collaboration. And our political leaders seem unable to break the cycle and change the architecture.
There is a story which shows us that there is a more collaborative, creative and democratic approach.
The history of abortion law in Ireland is well-documented. It was first banned in 1861. There was a referendum in 1983 which ensured that the constitution included an amendment which equated the unborn child’s right to life with that of the mother. Over the decades deliberative debate has often been stifled by tribal party allegiances.
But in 2016 the Finn-Gael minority government in Ireland established a number of Citizen Assemblies to look at issues related to the constitution. One of the topics to be considered would be the 8th amendment in relation to abortion. 99 members of the Irish community were selected at random to represent different demographics including gender, age, location, and social class. Members represented a spectrum of views on abortion. A 100th member was Justice Marie Laffoy who was appointed the Chair of the assembly.
There were five sessions over five weekends between November 2016 and April 2017. Members were paid expenses to attend. Each session began with an introductory statement from the Chair followed by expert presentations, Q&A sessions and debate, roundtable discussion and a plenary session. Members heard from people from both sides of the debate. And crucially, were then able to debate the issues among themselves, supported within the creative structure of the assembly.
Members were required to sit next to different people during the sessions so they experienced different views. Most of the sessions were live-streamed and remain online for anyone to watch. Submissions from the public were invited. Over 13,000 were submitted. The approach of the assembly was to encourage deliberation.
Louise Caldwell, one member of the assembly, described the experience:
I felt empowered and informed – it gave me the language and skills to have difficult discussions. In a room of 100 people, only a handful ever tried to create division or build walls among us. I think most people want to find things to agree on and to discover common ground – through this we can always learn new ways to go forward.
After their deliberation, the members of the Irish Citizen Assembly made recommendations to repeal the 8th amendment and legalise abortion in Ireland. Initially, criticism followed. Was the Citizen Assembly out of step with public opinion or was it a fix? But as time went on the assembly’s recommendations were reflected upon by politicians, by the media and then by the public during a referendum campaign in 2018. The referendum result mirrored the outcome of the assembly.
Fionnuala Geraghty, an assembly member, summed it up:
I felt relieved the rest of the country listened to the same amount of facts that we heard. I don’t think anybody went into this celebrating abortion being anything other than a tragic necessity at times. We were not guided by emotion. We were guided by facts and by experts. It seems that somehow that got into the national consciousness. I believe that as an exercise in deliberative democracy, the citizens’ assembly proved its worth.
The process was considerable. It was calm, transparent, creative and shared. It changed the tone of a formerly tribal and entrenched argument and provided oxygen for a more deliberative and collaborative debate.
We currently have a factional and adversarial parliamentary democracy. At best, arguments and legislation are hammered out in the House of Commons and its committees and are then replayed and refined in the House of Lords. And let’s remember that you get to have an opinion in the Lords if you are an appointed ex-politician, you’re a top Bishop or you’re a hereditary peer – I mean come on! And decisions all come back to the winning tribe in the Commons.
What if, instead of the Lords, we had an ongoing year-round series of Citizen’s Assemblies? A home for public debate – which could move round the UK – discussing the big issues of our time and of our shared future. Involving thousands of citizens on multiple issues over the coming decade. And a House of Commons which responded, reacted and sought to debate and implement the recommendations of assemblies. Instead of a factional and tribal politics we could reinvent democracy with a citizen-led model for the twenty-first century.
If you think this is an interesting idea and you’re new to the idea of Citizen Assemblies, then do find out about (and maybe even promote) the current citizen assembly which is happening on climate change. It met for the first time on weekend of 25/26th January.
If, alternatively, you have come across this blog, and you are already actively working on Citizen Assemblies in the UK, and you need volunteers on anything you are doing, then I would be very happy to help!
If you are reading this and you work for a broadcaster, have you thought about finding a way to televise an assembly or make a documentary about the process so that more members of the public can hear about the potential of sortition and deliberative democracy?
Thanks for reading.
Any feedback can come in whatever form suits you: an email to me (mrdavidjubb at gmail.com] or blog comment or tweet.