Progressive Futures

The populist signal

11 June 2015

Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change

Claudia Chwalisz

The social and economic shifts of the past few decades have hardened the deeply held scepticism and distrust of ‘the establishment’. In an age of historically low party membership, party identification, voter volatility, rising abstentionism and greater individualism, mainstream parties are struggling to be representative. This book is about the turbulent political scene unfolding in Britain and across western Europe. It focuses on why large swathes of voters feel that politics does not work, how this fuels support for insurgent parties and actors, and it investigates the power of democratic innovations.

Drawing on new survey data in the UK, as well as interviews and case studies, the book shows that people are concerned with the process of politics, not merely its performance, and that they have a genuine desire for greater political participation in the decision-making process. These new forms of political engagement should not feel like a threat to formal systems of government, but as much-needed additions that enrich democracy.

Key findings include:

•    69 per cent of voters feel the system of government needs significant improvement. This figure rises to 77 per cent among Green supporters;  83 per cent among Ukip supporters; and 90 per cent among SNP and Welsh nationalist supporters.
•    Only 21 per cent of people feel that national politicians listen to them, while 31 per cent feel their voice counts among local politicians;
•    54 per cent of all voters, and 63 per cent of Ukip supporters, said they would participate in citizens’ assemblies on local issues where decisions made were non-binding, while the same number (and 70 per cent of Ukip voters) would take part in an assembly that took decisions that were then carried out. SNP and Green voters were similarly supportive;
•    50 per cent of all voters, and 62 per cent of Ukip supporters, said they would participate in citizens’ assemblies on national issues where decisions made were non-binding, while support fell slightly if the assembly’s decisions were binding.

The conclusion offers recommendations for democratic innovation in the UK, including:

–    Replacing the archaic House of Lords with a citizens’ senate – a stratified randomly selected group of citizens to approve or veto legislation.
–    The next London mayor could should hold a citizens’ assembly shortly after the election to involve Londoners in determining the priorities and concrete proposals for his or her four-year term.
–    The same could happen in Bristol, Salford in Liverpool next year, and in Manchester in 2017 following the mayoral elections.
–    The General London Assembly could be replaced with a body of randomly selected citizens who are more diverse and more representative of the capital. An incremental option could be to add additional members to the existing GLA which are randomly selected.
–    Ministers could hold citizens’ assemblies like the Flemish Citizens’ Cabinet to advise on policies.

Photo credit: david muscroft /