We are facing a myriad of challenges. Whether that be the uncertain future of the NHS, a social care system under strain from an ageing population, the rise of precarious work, or the climate crisis (to name but a few), the issues are big, and won’t go away with wishful thinking.
That’s why Unlock Democracy decided to inject the usually dry and dull party conference season with some radical thinking. We didn’t want to talk about tinkering with a broken system, we wanted to talk about flipping the system on its head.
We kicked off in Liverpool for Labour Party conference. The idea was simple: 5 panelists would pitch 5 radical solutions that could go some way to fixing broken Britain.
We were lucky to be joined by Lisa Nandy MP (member for Wigan and Co-Founder of the Centre for Towns); Simon Alcock (ClientEarth); Cllr Mete Coban (My Life My Say); Cat Hobbs (We Own It); and Adam Ramsay (OpenDemocracy)
Here are six things I learned:
1. The solutions are there, but an institutional power imbalance is stopping progress
Existing institutions and political structures in the UK have both contributed to the challenges we face in society today, and also block the changes that are needed to remedy these issues for the future.
The UK is one of the most centralised states in the western world, and this has not happened by accident. Adam Ramsay from OpenDemocracy pointed to the sovereignty model of the UK parliament as entrenching the power of a small, elite group of people who get to determine the rules of the game.
The UK’s unwritten constitution is the pinnacle of a settlement that has been built to entrench the power of the elite. Whilst being lauded by its supporters for its flexibility, Adam highlighted how a flexible, uncodified constitution is only beneficial if you’re one of the elite few who are in a position to change the rules - and most of us aren’t. You can read more in Adam’s chapter ‘Trying to milk a vulture: if we want economic justice we need a democratic revolution’ for OpenDemocracy’s New Thinking for the British Economy publication.
The failure of the British state to be flexible for the benefit of the people presents in the routine workings of parliament, and its ability to take on the big issues of the day. Take for example, the issue of our air quality - which voters resoundingly think should be improved. Simon Alcock said that the UK could be a world leader - a trailblazer - in air quality and environmental standards, and yet instead, existing public policy means that the air we breathe is making us ill.
2. We need to inject humanity into our economy
How our economy is owned and run takes power away from individuals and communities. The lack of democracy and accountability in our economy, and the economic injustice that arises as a result of that, was a dominant theme.
One way this is borne out is how the way we measure economic progress fails to reflect or even account for that which impacts society in very real ways - unpaid work such as caring, the free time we have available to spend with friends and loved ones, environmental impact, and the level of inequality, for example.
Pitching her radical solution, Lisa Nandy took on Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the measure of the UK’s economic growth: "GDP tells us about turnover and investment, but it's blind to quality of our air, the health of our children, and the strength of relationships that help us keep going in the toughest of times". Lisa pointed out that “markets don’t see citizens they see consumers”, and as a result “those without purchasing power are invisible”.
Lisa suggested replacing GDP with the Genuine Progress Indicator. This would account for factors such as inequality, cost of unemployment, environmental damage, and the value of unpaid work. She compared what GDP tells us - that we’ve never had it so good - with what GPI tells us - that our progress has stagnated.
3. The economy is in desperate need of democratisation
Another aspect of our broken economic model was address by Cat Hobbs from We Own It, which campaigns for public ownership of public services. , who spoke about public ownership (or the lack thereof) of our public services.
Whether it be social care or council services, Cat spoke of how the past few decades of privatisation provide a stark warning for what happens when public services are put into private hands: “costs go up, quality goes down, and democracy is not just not unlocked, it goes completely out the window.”
Pushing the conversation forward, Cat called for us to think what democratic structures in publicly owned services should look like, and how public engagement with these services could be facilitated. She gave the example of Paris bringing water back into public hands, and ‘observatoire’ meetings held every month where citizens - representatives from civil society, scientists, and the local community - are able to question those running the service.
4. Meaningful devolution goes beyond the centre handing down power
While work is being done in the Labour Party to finesse its offering on devolution, Lisa Nandy highlighted that there are big gaps in accountability in the current system. She said that in Wigan, for example, the Department for Transport feels as remote as Great Manchester Transport - the solution isn’t to move from “one group of men behind closed doors to another”.
For devolution to be meaningful, the public has to be given the tools to hold local officials to account. Democracy and democratic engagement is about more than a vote once every few years, whether that be for a Metro Mayor, local councillors, or your MP. As Lisa put it, local democracy is hardly meaningful if you can vote for Andy Burnham one every few years but still need to rely on submitting Freedom of Information requests to get hold of meeting minutes.
Meaningful devolution means that both power and resources are devolved. Simon Alcock from ClientEarth gave the example of air pollution - dealing with this is devolved to Local Authorities, but they aren’t given the resources to take meaningful action. Mete Coban from My Life My Say echoed that there isn’t a one size fits all approach to devolution, but both power and resources need to be devolved for devolution to be meaningful. Mete, a Councillor himself, said that if councillors are trapped in a cycle of reacting to cuts then there isn’t the capacity to be forward-looking.
5. Democratic engagement needs to be done differently
There is increasing disconnect and division in society - between young and old, between towns and cities - and that calls for new models of democratic engagement.
One such model are the ‘Democracy Cafes’ being pioneered across the UK by My Life My Say. Mete Coban explained how these meetings bring 30-40 young people together to discuss over coffee.
The project aims to make politics more accessible and bring down the barriers to engaging. Mete said that “people shouldn’t feel that they have to dress smart and wear a suit to talk about politics. They shouldn’t have to feel that they have to go to formal institutions. Those are barriers to engagement.” It’s not hard to see how people feel alienated by Westminster and it’s historic building, traditions and conventions, and also our MPs - who unfortunately are still disproportionately older white men from a select number of private schools and universities.
6. There are lessons in the past but we also need to look to the future
While we can look to the past for inspiration, the panel roundly called for thinking to be forward-looking, and for challenges that are on the horizon to be tackled today.
The ownership of online data was one such issue raised by Cat Hobbs. Discussions about public ownership of public services usually revolve around services that used to be nationalised, such as the railways. But what about our private online data - which is currently owned by a small handful of companies in Silicon Valley? What would public ownership of that data look like, and how could nationalised public data be used for innovation?
Then there is the issue of how we respond to the climate crisis. The rise of development of electric vehicles already shows that the economy is being somewhat responsive to this crisis. But Simon Alcock questioned why we don’t already have a forward-looking industrial strategy that sets up British communities to take on projects like designing and building the electric vehicles of tomorrow that will bring regeneration and a longer term legacy for generations to come. When we know that there will be jobs in green technology in the future, why aren’t we innovating and seizing on those opportunities today?
This was echoed by Lisa Nandy, who asked “why shouldn’t kids in Barnsley get to power us through the next generation?”. After all, these are communities that have huge pride in the their mining history, but for many families opportunities for their children and grandchildren seem non-existent. They are now forced to work in the Asos warehouses in “dead end, zero hours, zero hope jobs”.
Unlock Democracy is campaigning for a new constitution for the UK because we see these various problems as being endemic and systemic.
We need to turn the relationship between citizen and state on its head. We can’t tinker with the current power imbalance, we need to invert it. The UK needs a new political culture in which democratic engagement is revived. People need to have control over their lives and their communities, but the current system places too much power in the hands on an elite few.