Monday 14 September 2009

Revisioning Democracy

The question of how to make institutions and practices more inclusive, accessible and effective, as well as credible, was explored at the Revisioning Democracy event hosted by the Young Fabians, Fabian Womens Network and the Downing Street Project. Guest speakers included Seema Malhotra, director of the Fabian Womens Network, Indra Adnan from the Downing Street Project and Alex Shankland from the Insitute of Development Studies at Sussex University.

Kate Groutcott of the Young Fabians chaired the well-attended panel event at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). In her introduction she spoke of the public appetite for political reform that has emerged from expenses scandal, and asked: "Is it the whole system that needs to be addressed, a new concept of democracy rather than sticking plaster solutions?"

Seema Malhotra welcomed "a debate whose time has come", and presented some facts and figures to frame the debate of what a healthy and functioning democracy for the 21st Century should look like. She covered the representation of women across the political parties and showed that while a lot of work remains to be done, Labour's women and men have made great strides both within the party and in government to increase the presence of women in key roles.

Seema discussed all-women shortlists, the policy legacy of "Blair's Babes" and the particular challenges they faced. Calling for a new benchmark in politics, Seema identified two key themes: political education to increase engagment with political processes, and changing political structures to embrace new channels of activity in the age of social networking. "If we are to reconceptualise power, politics and democracy, we need to take a radical look not just at parliament, but how it interacts with our lives," she said.

Indra Adnan from the Downing Street Project explained the nature of power, and why it is important to understand our relationship to it. Her examination of how we "crave power but distrust the powerful" opened her presentation on hard and soft power. Using examples such as hard power being like a gun, and soft power like a magnet, Indra discussed the advantages and disadvantages of each, and explained that a balance of both is needed for foreign policy and domestic political culture.

Indra argued that in the UK, the new levels of dissatisfaction with politics due to the expenses scandal, as well as low voter turnout, could be attributed to too much hard power. It is also cited as a reason that many women stay out of politics. She said that more soft power is needed, providing leadership but also a way of allowing people to speak out and be heard. "There are good arguments to bring more women into politics because it's fair to women, but there is also a good argument to bring more women into politics because it's fair to society as a whole." She added that women don't necessarily display the characteristics of soft power, but that a balance of the sexes leads to a more collaborative atmosphere; and many men, as well as women, don't like the purely hard power approach.

Insights into the democratic experience in Brazil were provided by Alex Shankland, who discussed new democratic spaces and revisioning representation. He focused on the community forums in Brazil that bring people together in their thousands to discuss rights-based health reform. He pointed out that the concept of citizen participation as a citizen right came with democracy in the country as a response to an authoritarian regime, not as a bolt-on. With that in mind, the system cannot be lifted whole from one country to another, but the idea of new democratic places in which people negotiate and debate, renewing their commitment to shared ideas and learning about political citizenship, could be adapted for different countries.

In Brazil, the forums also have teeth, the ability to affect funding allocation, which brings up the issue of representation. If these new democratic spaces "become hardwired into the democratic process, we need to answer questions of who is represented, and how." Alex spoke about the need for policy debates to make space for other feelings, thoughts and words on this issue, not just leaving it to policy-makers. He questioned how democracy is presented in the UK, "as something between the ballot box and Westminster, or part of the social fabric of our lives?" This is contrast to how the rights and speech of democracy is embedded in the social fabric of Brazil, the result of a burst of social energy in response to the struggle against dictatorship. He asked whether the moment the UK is at, the crisis of representation, will generate the necessary social energy for change, stressing that a community space is needed to connect the different strands of society.

In the question and answer session that followed the presentations, the panel discussed the need for a soft power relationship between parliament and the people that hasn't happened yet. Seema said: "Revisioning society is the big question, revisioning politics is part of that question. There hasn't been a partnership between parliament and people about how it should change."

The final question from the audience concerned the recent public clashes between far-right and anti-fascist groups and whether there could be optimism for change, a question that was reiterated by other members of the audience. Indra talked about still being hopeful. "Don't look at the problem, be the solution," she said. "Be the change you wish to see." Alex addressed the conflict averse nature of British society, saying that there was an inclination to close down spaces because we don't know how to interact. His advice was to get out there and argue.

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