Take Back Control: Beyond Representative Democracy

Robin McAlpine from Common Weal talks about how the EU referendum has highlighted the limits of representative democracy. He considers how we can involve the public in decision making processes to bridge the gap.

The era of representative democracy as the only kind of democracy you're allowed is over. We would do well to recognise the fact and plan for something better rather than deny the fact and end up with something worse.

Representative democracy is a model which I'd argue reached its logical conclusion in the Blair years. At times New Labour was almost explicitly saying 'we know you don't care about how you're governed so why not let us take the problem off your hands and you can go shopping instead'.

Unfortunately, Blair longed to be a loved and trusted paternal figure in an era where an information revolution means we expect more than platitudes. As a result, paternal politics is failing everywhere.

In Scotland we went through this process pretty early with the independence referendum. There is much which happened which I find instructive when I think about government.

One of the quotes which I used a lot when talking at town hall meetings during the indyref was by US civil rights activist Oliver Wendel Holmes: “A man's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”

It turned out to be true. If people started out thinking their role didn't go beyond putting someone else's leaflets through someone else's door, it certainly didn't end up like that. People discovered they could design and indeed execute their own politics, locally and nationally.

No, not everyone became an activist, but many people who had never been activists before got involved. I know many of them who have stayed involved. Some of them are now MPs.

The point is that when people are exposed to opportunities to participate, and when those opportunities are real, they get used to it very quickly. Not only do they rise to the task, they often do a very good job of it indeed.

So what comes next? Well, there are very good reasons why representative democracy remains at the heart of our politics. But representative democracy must better understand its limitations, its boundaries Because what representative democracy has been doing is outsourcing far too much of its decision-making to private interests.

Mostly (not without exception, but mostly) it's not the big decisions made transparently and through debate in Westminster which get people angry. It's another secretive commission set up with vested interests and big money at its heart which writes policy without transparency and is enacted with little or no debate.

Its discovering that all that PFI secrecy was to hide the massive transfer of wealth from taxpayers to shady consortia of the already rich. It's seeing inquiries into government mistakes stuffed with establishment figures who let the politicians off the hook. It's knowing that when the government wants to know what it should do, it's never you it asks.

Blair perfected the practice of drawing the borders of representative democracy remarkably tightly round his own sofa and filling the space beyond with vested interests. That the financial crash of 2008 still isn't seen as a failure in democracy by the media and the political class is, to my mind, inseparable from why we got Brexit.

So if Brexit isn't a shining example of great decision-making when representative democracy can't deal with an issue, what do we do? I know that other writers in this series will discuss deliberative and participatory democracy practices. At Common Weal we're working on policies ranging from a citizens' assembly to form a second 'chamber' for our parliament to independent consultation units which consult openly at an early stage to various forms of mini-public and deliberative polls to localised forums for people to set agendas and raise their own issues.

What is important isn't that these possibilities exist – a visionary government could use them right now. What is important is that they should be built into the fabric of democracy. When government feels that the limits of representative democracy have been reached, where it needs advice and guidance beyond what it can find in its parliaments and committees, it should be obliged to go to the public, not the vested interests.

Unless there is a very, very good reason, the advice that government receives should reflect the balanced opinion of a representative group of the population as a whole which has had time and resource to hear evidence from every side of an issue, including but not limited to vested interests and experts.

That would be the next phase in our democracy – informed government by the people when the limits of representative democracy are reached. It would create a politics which reflected the informed interests of citizens and did not default to giving the rich and powerful whatever they want.

Some people think participatory democracy is just the latest liberal fad, some say it couldn't work. What they actually fear or fail to see is that this could be the biggest revolution in our democracy since the universal franchise.


So, if you ever feel that we're in some kind of a dire, inexplicable, endless mess and you're wondering who could get us out of it, spare a moment to consider that our saviours might well be us ourselves. If only we had a democracy that gave a damn about what we thought.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Unlock Democracy