Down with participatory democracy

In recent days the Department for International Development and the Conservative Party have each published major policy statements on international development and aid, the former in an impressive new White Paper (pdf file) and the latter in an almost equally impressive policy paper,  OneWorld Conservatism (pdf file).   It’s heartening that on the overwhelmingly pressing problem of world poverty and how to alleviate it, the two main parties are so closely agreed.  No sensible observer would quarrel with anything in the Conservative paper’s introduction to its list of detailed recommendations:

• If elected, a new Conservative Government will be fully committed to achieving, by 2013, the UN target of spending 0.7 per cent of national income as aid

• We believe that the Department for International Development (DFID) should be here to stay.  With a Conservative Government, DFID will continue to report to the Secretary of State for International Development, who will have a seat in the Cabinet. British aid will remain untied from commercial interests, and we will maintain DFID’s focus on poverty reduction

• We support and will continue to work towards the Millennium Development Goals. [Original emphases]

Not all of this will have the traditional Tory Party members and supporters out in the rural shires dancing in the fields, and much credit is due to both David Cameron and his shadow development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, for their principled commitment to bipartisanship – and for acknowledging the merits of at least one area of the Labour government’s record.

There is however one proposal in the Conservative paper which is, and should be, highly controversial:

We will establish a new MyAid fund, worth £40 million in its first year. Every taxpayer will be able to log on to the MyAid website and view details of ten ongoing DFID-funded aid programmes, and vote for which one they think should receive the extra money. The options will include programmes run directly by DFID, as well as those run by respected NGOs. The Fund will then be distributed between the ten programmes in proportion to how many votes they receive. For example, if 25 per cent of people vote for the DFID programme in Malawi, that programme would receive 25 per cent of the Fund – £10 million. Everyone who votes will be kept up to date with regular email updates about the progress of ‘their’ project.

We will consult carefully on the technical aspects of the voting system. The projects will be chosen so as to illustrate the range of activities in which DFID and NGOs are involved and the variety of countries they work in. This will increase public understanding of, interest in and support for Britain’s aid programme — and create a clear incentive for DFID to demonstrate and improve the quality and impact of its work. If this idea proves successful, we will scale it up in future years. One option would be to set the level of the fund so that it equals the total amount raised by Comic Relief.

Interesting, ingenious, carefully worked out, even cautious — but in the end misguided.  We elect our MPs and governments to govern according to their own best judgements, not according to ours.  They have access to expert advice, both from officials and others, politically committed and professionally neutral, and to a wealth of information which it would take any individual private citizen a lifetime to track down and absorb.  We are fully entitled to monitor what they do, to try to influence them, to hold them to account, and ultimately to kick them out at election time and substitute an alternative slate of rascals.  But we should not attempt to micro-manage them from day to day.

Current disillusionment with politicians — in effect all politicians, of whatever party — has been sharpened by the scandal over MPs’ expenses and by the collapse of our banking and economic systems, unfairly but inevitably blamed on the supposed failures of the incumbent government’s policies.  This has led to an outbreak of proposals for substituting “the will of the people” for the judgement of politicians in day-to-day decision-making.

Some are demanding a recall system, under which an arbitrary percentage of the constituents of an MP whose conduct has displeased them would have the right to ‘recall’ the MP and force a by-election, on the pattern of some US states.  As I wrote in an earlier post about current zany suggestions for constitutional reform, this would provide “a field-day for the glassy-eyed environmentalists, anti-abortionists, vegans, English flag-waggers, pacifists, single fathers, flat-earthers and other fanatics.”  Others want referendums on a wide range of policy issues — most notably the Lisbon treaty, on which the refusal to hold a referendum has caused a deafening amount of noise, not least from a deeply Europhobic Tory party.  There’s also currently a campaign for a Citizens’ Convention:

A Citizens’ Convention would a deliberative assembly consisting of at least 100 ordinary men and women selected from the electoral roll, just as juries are selected in the courts. The selection would be ‘semi-random’ as attempts would be made to ensure that the Convention represents all sections of society and all areas of the UK.

The role of the Citizens’ Convention would be to make a series of recommendations to Parliament for improving UK politics. In particular, we would want it to look at:

* The payments and expenses of MPs and members of the House of Lords.
* The electoral system or systems in the UK including the composition of the House of Lords.
* Greater powers for citizens to hold MPs and members of the House of Lords to account including the circumstances and method by which citizens can petition for the recall MPs and members of the House of Lords.
* The conduct of business in Parliament including the powers of the House of Commons; and of individual members of Parliament.
* The funding of political parties including the issue of caps on donations.

It could explore other areas of reform if it decided to.

(I love that parting shot.)

The campaign envisages that the Convention would be confined to making “recommendations” to parliament on all these issues (including a provision for recalling MPs), rather than having actual legislative or executive powers.  But once the 100 lucky conventioneers got the bit between their teeth, who knows what powers they might demand?

The proposition that a largely random collection of ordinary citizens — chosen mainly by lot in the case of the convention, or by counting heads in the case of the MP’s recall proposal — are better placed to exercise informed and mature judgements on complex political and constitutional issues than elected ministers backed by experienced government departments, or MPs with their extensive parliamentary and other resources and in many cases their long experience and expertise, is fundamentally fatuous.  It flies in the face of the Burkean doctrine that MPs should be representatives, not delegates.  It ignores the reality that the great majority of sensible (and other) people would be appalled by the idea of being constantly required to pronounce on the complex and generally tedious controversies of the day, wanting nothing more than to be allowed to get on with their lives while others better qualified to make such decisions are allowed to do so.  It actually encourages the pernicious populism of governments which seek to steer by reference to opinion polls, focus groups and phone-in programmes on radio and television, instead of making their own evidence- and advice-based decisions.  Above all it effectively prohibits ministers from making necessary but unpopular decisions and from leading and educating public opinion instead of meekly following it.

Opposition to all suggestions for ‘participatory democracy’ infallibly invites the jeer about “the gentleman in Whitehall knows best”, generally assumed to be a self-evidently ludicrous proposition.  But sometimes he does, and advises his minister accordingly.  Whether the minister accepts or rejects that advice, he must answer for his decisions to parliament, and every few years to the electorate.  By their fruits we shall know them.  Why should the man on the Clapham omnibus be expected to possess more experience, knowledge and judgement about some multi-dimensional political issue than those whom we pay and elect to know about such things?  The chances are that he has far better things to do when he gets off that bus in Clapham.

For better or worse, we have a terrible example of the actual consequences of government by public opinion and referendum.  California, whose fiscal and other policies are virtually strait-jacketed by the misguided results of ‘propositions’ on which its electorate votes at election time, is calamitously broke as a direct result:

California has a budget deficit of $26.3bn (€18.85bn, £16.18bn) on revenues of just $113bn…. It has a balanced budget rule that forces it to eliminate the deficit but no agreement as to how. It has already in effect decided to selectively default — paying vendors with IOUs rather than cash….

The worst case scenario would be a default by the state which has $59bn in general debt, $8bn in bonds linked to securitised revenues such as tolls and $2bn commercial paper… … there are institutional reasons why the budget gap is proving difficult to close. Aside from the absurdity of having to balance the budget in the midst of the worst recession in half a century, California’s fiscal flexibility is diminished by other statutory restrictions, mostly imposed by state referendums known as propositions. These restrictions make it exceptionally difficult for the state to raise property taxes or cut basic education spending. About 25 per cent of revenue is, meanwhile, ringfenced. …
[‘California state ills could grow into a federal headache’, Krishna Guha in Washington, Financial Times, July 13 2009: emphasis added]

I rest my case.


10 Responses

  1. Paulie says:


    You’ve picked what is perhaps the main subject of my own blog and written a post that I’d agree with. However, I think you miss a few important points that are worth considering:

    1. I agree that asking people what you should do – as a policymaker – is a fools errand in every way. Asking people to describe a situation and jointly draft an outline of some of the options open to you – one that acknowledges trade-offs – is another matter entirely. You’d actually increase the quality of evidence that you consider AND be able to inprove the relationship between politicians and the people they represent.

    2. Let’s look at a broader definition of policymaking. How about designing new housing estates, schools public buildings etc? What about finding ways of getting the ‘hard to reach’ to be as available for comment as the ‘hard to avoid’ – how about finding new ways of getting people to give different persectives on an issue – not in the context that they can ‘have their say’ but one where they can break the monopsony of civil servants, think tanks, pressure groups and political parties in providing policy advice?

    Everyone always remembers the bit in Burke’s speech where he goes on about not sacrificing his judgement to yours. But look at the para before that – where he talks about being in the closest communion with electors.

    Anyone who imagines that either those monoposony of providers or the people who win elections are in particularly close communion with voters is in need of a spot o re-education IMHO.

    Good post tho… 😉

    Brian writes: Thanks for that, Paulie. I entirely agree that public consultation on a wide range of issues, including especially those which directly affect the way people live their lives (such as the examples you give), is not just desirable but actually essential. By all means let our elected decision-makers and their advisers constantly test the temperature of public opinion, invite opinions and proposals and options, hold town meetings and read opinion polls. But having done all that, let them make the final decisions, and not try to out-source them to random sections of the general public.

    In short, I agree with you all the way.

    And PS: Many thanks to your admirable blog for introducing me to Etta James!

  2. Peter Davidson says:


    Far be it from me to pour cold water on your (quite frankly) elitist take on the role played by our Parliamentarians but can I bring you back to reality by mention of a single word “DEMOCRACY” I’m sure I don’t have to bore you with a dictionary definition of this term?

    To plagiarise the strap line of a current campaign, “Politics is [now] too important to leave to the politicians”. This sums up a more pragmatic and realistic approach to the vital process of constitutional reform. The UK’s political élites (of all complexions) have proved themselves utterly unworthy of the task conferred upon them by the people. Successive administrations have sought to centralise, obfuscate, create barriers to transparency, sub-contract to non-accountable institutions and generally pervert the function of democratic politics. It is time for the people to reassert the sovereignty they alone embody.

    I wholeheartedly support the Citizens Convention (Ethics and Accountability) Bill, but of course both you and I know that the Bill has absolutely zero chance of progressing through the legislative process. It is in fact merely a symbolic device aimed at drawing attention to the parlous state of British Democracy. I happen to think that a panel of 100 is too small for this onerous task, maybe 200 would be nearer the mark. Your bewildering claim that these individuals would be simply ‘not be up to the complexity of the task’ displays an arrogance that beggars belief, a sentiment pervading more or less every strand of discussion in this blog.
    If (and I know it’s a biggie) a deliberative body drawn directly from the citizenry was ever established you can be sure that:
    Its terms of reference would be tightly defined to ensure it focused on the matter in hand;

    It would seek expert guidance, advice and opinion from a wide range of civic society, constitutional and political academia, campaigning pressure groups, think tanks, politicians and political parties (both National and Local) and the wider public at large through witness sessions (held in public one trusts).

    I’d specifically exclude commercial lobbyists from this element of the process

    This would be no five minute back of a fag packet affair. Whilst the identity of panel members was in the public domain (to garner legitimacy), extreme care would have to be taken to ensure that panellists were not ‘tapped up’ by special interest groups. The panel would be charged with the task of recommending profound changes to the manner in which this country is governed. If that includes an element of participatory or direct democracy, I see nothing wrong with that provided such processes were mere adjuncts to rather than direct replacements for the main event of representative democracy.
    It is not unsurprising to discover your apparent contempt for meaningful electoral reform and the frightening prospect (from your viewpoint) that it might just result in a more ‘Representative’ Parliament. Time and again we have seen the ‘holier than thou’ sentiment, much in evidence in your narratives, displayed in abundance by our so called political masters (strange, I always harboured this bizarre notion that they were elected to serve the public but maybe I’m just being naïve?) betters, witness Peter Hain only a week or so ago when challenged on whether there should be a referendum if moves towards replacing FPTP with AV went ahead “I do not think voters would thank you for troubling them with the question.”
    What planet is Peter Hain (and you it would seem) living on?

    Brian writes: Peter, this is an entirely predictable response to the simple proposition that a random selection of the population — people like you and me — are in general less well qualified to take political and constitutional decisions affecting millions of our fellow-citizens than those whom we elect for just that purpose, and the army of professional experts and advisers who serve them. I’m all for popular consultation before decisions are taken, and for lobbyists and pressure groups of all kinds, some well informed, some barmy, to have the opportunity to try to influence MPs and ministers by any and all legal means. But decisions must be taken in the end by those best equipped to take them. To call that “élitist” is frankly — well, you can supply the word.

  3. Tom Freeman says:

    Very sound post Brian.

    “once the 100 lucky conventioneers got the bit between their teeth, who knows what powers they might demand?”

    The other notable thing about this Citizens’ Convention is that its members would be unaccountable. The idea that their being ‘ordinary people’ would remove the need for the standard democratic checks on whatever powers they might exercise is romantic nonsense. Put any group of people together like that and you’ll quickly see the standard pathologies of institutional politics popping up.

    Brian writes: I very much agree. Accountability is indeed the vital missing ingredient in this idea. If such a body had any real powers, its lack of accountability would be fatal. If not, it would be a waste of time: anyone can set up a debating society and send its ideas and recommendations to ministers and MPs without the need to set up this great convention. However, a constitutional convention on the Scottish model, reporting to parliament and subject to a subsequent referendum, with an elected or appointed membership set up to produce detailed recommendations on a specific issue (such as a constitution for a devolved England as part of a federated United Kingdom) would be an entirely different matter. Such a body would probably be a necessary part of the procedures required for movement to such a new constitutional status for England and the UK, along with many other necessary stepping-stones.

  4. Chris Vine says:

    “A Citizens’ Convention would a deliberative assembly consisting of at least 100 ordinary men and women selected from the electoral roll, just as juries are selected in the courts. The selection would be ‘semi-random’ as attempts would be made to ensure that the Convention represents all sections of society and all areas of the UK.”

    Sounds a bit like the former hereditary House of Lords, except that in that case selection occurred at birth. A more modern version of it may be to pick, at random, 1 in 100,000 births at registration (or whatever the relevant proportion is required to be) as “citizens’ tribunes” with a right and duty to attend Parliament upon attaining the age of majority. That would give an opportunity for them to receive some tailored education, aimed at assisting in what will be expected of them, before actually taking office.

    Brian writes: I remain sceptical. Random selection of citizens for jury service produces many more names than are eventually accepted as competent actually to serve on a jury, with a judge (assisted by experienced barristers) adjudicating challenges. Who would perform the same function for the Citizens’ Convention? Would those picked at birth — or indeed later — be forbidden to earn their livings in ways that would prevent them from devoting considerable amounts of their working lives to their Convention duties? How would they be compensated for loss of earnings during Convention service? Who would provide its support staff, reseach facilities, offices, communications? Who would be exempt from Convention service — MPs? Local Councillors? Policemen? Soldiers? Civil Servants and diplomats? Judges? Answers to all such questions would add up to a very expensive and high-profile new institution: would it really be proportionate to the rather limited task of producing non-binding recommendations, most of which would probably be obviously impracticable and even more of which might well be doomed to be ignored?

    I’m afraid that the whole Citizens’ Convention concept, regardless of how its members might be selected, is one of those fine-sounding ideas which, on close inspection, dissolves into thin air.

  5. Chris Vine says:


    My comment was slightly tongue in cheek. But having said that I don’t think there is much mileage in a Citizens’ Convention and that is not what I was proposing.

    I suppose what I propose is replacing the clapped-out former-politician placemen at present in the Lords with people selected at birth, something closer to the old House of Lords which was much more independently minded in the hereditary days. I suppose what you would end up with would be a pool of pre-selected people taking office when one of the existing tribunes dies/resigns, acting as a brake on the elected House as a revising chamber.

    Brian writes: Thanks. But I can’t imagine any reason for not having a wholly elected second chamber of our legislature, like the grown-up democracies (most of them). If ever we complete the devolution process which we have gingerly begun but by no means finished, we shall find ourselves in a federal system (which is the obvious logic of devolution), in which the elected second chamber will be a Senate on the US and Australian models, with equal representation for each of the four federated nations — perhaps 25 senators each, making a 100-member senate, with limited powers roughly similar to those of the present house of lords, elected on a different system from that of the house of commons, the system to be chosen separately by each of the four nations (so they could be different from each other), and probably with six-year terms for each senator and elections for half the senate every three years. The purpose of having equal representation for each of the nations would be to prevent England, much the most populous of the four, being able to override the other three — exactly as in the US and Australia (California and Texas vs. Vermont and Wyoming, etc.). We could start to move in this direction at any time if our political leaders only had the wit and vision to understand the inevitable and highly beneficial federal destination. This would obviate the need for fancy solutions based on lotteries or near-replicas of the house of commons.

  6. Jeremy says:

    Whilst, Brian, I largely share your assessment of the impracticality of a Citizens Forum and have some sympathy with your contention that we should not constantly seek to second-guess the decisions of our elected politicians, I cannot accept your reluctance to introduce anything which could be labelled as “participatory democracy”. You allude to the current widespread public disillusionment with politicians from all the main parties. This may now be concentrated on their arrogance and greed but surely it goes much deeper than this. Part of the problem is that too many of today’s MPs are party apparatchiks who have moved from being researchers and/or local councillors or Trade Union officials to the Commons without having obtained any experience of the wider workplace and world. Perhaps this is why Vince cable, former Chief Economist at Shell, commands such attention and respect?  To hanker after a more representative group of Parliamentarians is ,in my view, both understandable and sensible.
        I would be happier with our present system if it really did give the electorate at large the periodic opportunity to choose the nature of the government it wanted. The problem today is that with our FPTP system elections hinge on just a handful of seats involving only hundreds of thousands of voters rather than millions. It is therefore hardly suprising that so many voters, particularly the young, in recent years have concluded that their votes mean nothing and so they have lost interest and stayed away. Against this background we should welcome ideas such as the MyAid Fund rather than carping at it. Indeed,  despite your apparent terror of the electorate being allowed, as originally promised, to give their verdict by a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, the reluctance of the government – and MPs of all parties – to regulate themselves properly suggests that there may be a case for referenda on all  major constitutional changes. I recognise that what is “major” would inevitably be contentious. However, this aside,  we clearly must not go down the American road of consant ‘propositions. On most issues we would have to continue to rely on our elected representatives and those placed in the second chamber since I personally do not want this simply to replicate the Commons. it must be capable, and allowed to subject proposed legislation to proper scrutiny. However the composition of the Lords is a separate issue.

    Brian writes: Jeremy, I fear we’ll just have to accept that we disagree once again. I would only want to question your imputation that an MP with a local government councillor or trade union official’s background has no “experience of the wider workplace and world”: more, I’d have thought, than someone whose only extra- or pre-parliamentary experience had been as a director of his father’s company or as a hedge fund manager. One other thing: as I hardly ever tire of repeating, now that we’re in a virtually federal constituional situation, the obvious and necessary role of the second chamber at Westminster must be as a classical federal senate, with equal representation from each of the four UK nations, regardless of their size or population, elected by whatever form of PR each nation chooses (i.e. not necessarily one system suits all), on a different electoral cycle from that of the (federal) house of commons. This is so tediously obvious that hardly anyone seems able to see it!

  7. Peter Davidson says:

    Brian writes: But decisions must be taken in the end by those best equipped to take them. To call that “élitist” is frankly — well, you can supply the word.
    Try “correct”
    Brian writes: Well, all right, so long as you aren’t taking ‘élitist’ as a pejorative adjective, which I suspect you are; in which case, you’re evidently arguing that decisions should not be taken by those best equipped to take them, probably because you are conflating the concept of responsibility for taking decisions with the idea of being answerable for the decisions you take to those who elect you and are affected by your decisions. So I prefer “barmy” to “correct”. But everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, I suppose, however ****** it might be.

  8. Peter Davidson says:

    Brian Barder: you’re evidently arguing that decisions should not be taken by those best equipped to take them,

    Now you’re really ‘avin a larf
    However, come 7th May, when Labour is swept from office by an electorate utterly disengaged from the democratic political process by the very same “we know best” approach embodied in this blog, I have a shrewd idea who won’t be laughing then?
    Trouble is, the UK seems determined to leap lemming like from the disastrous consequences of NuLabour hubris into the jaws of NuCon avarice and greed, courtesy of the very same discredited voting system an increasingly informed public wants to ditch toute suite – see the latest output from Power2010 for a taste of participatory democracy in action

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. But I’m not sure that it contributes usefully to calm discussion of the merits and drawbacks of the various current proposals for ‘participatory democracy’, most of which I continue to believe to be misguided, potentially dangerous, and based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of our representative parliamentary democracy. Moreover, if you favour proportional representation to replace our present (by no means discredited) voting system for the house of commons, I hope you realise that it would demolish any element of ‘participatory democracy’ in our system. The law of unintended consequences applies here as elsewhere.

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