What is democracy for?

Elections are meant to be an opportunity for the public collectively to judicate on competing visions of the good society, but democracy has been eroded under a system that marginalises the majority, argues Neal Lawson

September 23, 2009
8 min read

This is a moment that needs to be seized and used for our kind of politics. There’s the danger that this moment just plays itself out and we don’t get the level of change to our political system that we want – but we won’t know unless we test it, really try to push it and make things happen. The two main political party leaders don’t want the kind of change the country needs. They certainly won’t act without real pressure from below.

Like many, I’ve been guilty of thinking that change in politics happens easily – through a press release and a bit of a campaign. In fact meaningful change, such as electoral reform, happens through struggle, by building pressure, being committed, through sacrifice. Because in politics nothing of any value is simply given away, particularly power. You have to fight for it, you have to win it.

Competing visions

Firstly I want to step back and consider what democracy is for. I don’t think we talk enough about this. We talk a lot about what kind of democratic system we want – and that is absolutely right and proper – but the most important question is ‘what is democracy there to do’?

Democracy can only be about one thing really. It’s about competing visions of the good society, different visions of how you want to live your life yourself and with others. Coming from the left I have a particular view of that, but I obviously understand that people on the right have an equally genuine and legitimate view of what they want the good society to be.

We can come up with great answers, the best technical, fairest, most representative, accountable, legitimate – every criteria you want. We could design a fantastic theoretical political democratic model. But unless that model is infused with, and has running through it, the lifeblood of what you want to use the democratic system for, it is useless.

I want the system to be fair, accountable and legitimate – but I also want it to be about something. Because there’s no point in going to vote, however representative your vote is, however much your vote counts, if it can’t change anything, if all three parties are saying pretty much the same thing.

That is the space that we’ve got ourselves into.

So this is a moment for change not just in terms of electoral systems but in terms making the democratic system work as the place in which we have competing visions of the good society.

I always like the notion that if the democratic space in Greek terminology was the agora (the ring), the space in which people as citizens stood and talked and debated and collectively decided their future, then the pro-market people today are the agoraphobics – people who fear that open space, where people collectively campaign and make decisions, because they would rather it were done as individuals.

The market state

In the past few decades we’ve gone from a bureaucratic state to a market state. And clearly what we’ve seen in the past few months is the collapse of the notion that markets are efficient, that they work, that they can deliver for people. Markets can be brilliantly dynamic, creative, and innovative. But they are also destructive as well. They always tend towards over-accumulation; they always push themselves too far.

Markets have no morality. They just look for more and more areas of profit. And by pushing democracy and society to the margins, they destroy the fertile territory that they need to operate. Markets need people, they need families, they need social fabric, they need trust: all the things that markets don’t do are eaten up by their steady progression into all aspects of our lives, our communities, our societies. So in a sense this crisis of markets was always going to happen. They were always going to over-accumulate, to take more and more financial risks.

And they were certainly going to do it under a first-past-the-post voting system – a system that as we well know only listens to a few swing voters in a few swing seats, that is only going to listen to Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre, that is only going to listen to the City and the very few voices that count, which are going to say that ‘the market way, the individualistic way, the consumer way is the only way’. And so it was a crisis that was almost bound to happen, and I think that the political system and first-past-the-post played a huge part in that.

So, after the ‘bureaucratic state’ and the ‘market state’, what comes next? For me it’s the democratic state: the state in which people – their voices, decisions and votes – hold sway. Not the person in Whitehall knows best, not outsourcing, PPP, Serco-Capita and all the rest, but people as citizens making choices and decisions collectively, in their communities, through their public services, and in the way Westminster is elected and held to account. That is what we have to explore in the coming weeks, months and years: what are the institutions, framework and culture of the democratic state?

The democratic society

What spurs me on and why I’d still describe myself as a ‘social-ist’ (someone who believes in society and the role and value of society) is that you can see now the way in which democracy becomes both the means and the ends of our politics.

For most of my lifetime, including in my time in the Labour Party, politicians have just seen democracy as a means to an end, a way of getting elected and put into power. But the democratic society must be one in which we are empowered – not just by fair votes at Westminster and in local government, as important as that obviously is but as citizens with a voice and a say in our communities and at work. We should be citizens in our public services, too, not just passive recipients. Indeed, the answer to virtually every problem that we face is daring more democracy in our politics, our communities and our workplaces.

That is my vision of the good society. Socialism is about people having a voice and a say and having control over their lives; neither a machine telling them, nor a market pushing and dictating to them, but them collectively deciding, debating, discussing and moving towards some kind of consensus about what they want.

And in that means and ends come together. Democracy is not just the route by which we come to the good society – it is the good society itself. And while the notion of people having autonomy, of them having the ability to control and influence and determine their lives through democratic organisation at all those levels seems to me to be an inspiring vision of what the good society is, it does need a democratic system to enable it to happen.

You only change the big things in your community, your locality, your country – or the world – by binding together and joining with others. I can’t stop the destruction of the planet on my own. I can only do that by combining together with other people, but that process has to be democratic, legitimate and accountable. Not the old party machines, not the old socialism but a properly democratic socialism – that’s what I believe in. I want a state that is answerable to the people – that’s why I believe in electoral reform and why I believe that the state should be democratised at every level, because it’s our state not theirs. I know that it’s only the state operating democratically, fairly and accountably, that is going to deliver the more equal, sustainable and democratic society that I aspire to.

The present moment crystallises all this. This is a moment for the electoral reform movement to make a huge advance, and we must do everything to seize this opportunity. But beyond that we need to recognise that democracy is not just an instrumental good – it is an intrinsic good. It is the way in which we build the good life and the good society.

This is an edited version of Neal Lawson’s keynote address to the annual general meeting of the Electoral Reform Society


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