Is there a crisis in representative democracy? Many people seem to think so. Brexit, Trump, Macron and even current events in Catalonia have all been read as evidence of this. Many commentators have treated them as a two fingered salute to unaccountable elites or as an expression of popular will that works around outmoded institutional structures.
Some will also see further evidence of this breakdown of the representative body politic in the annual parade of party conferences we have just finished.
Of course there’s some truth in all of this. We have certainly seen a collapse of trust in institutions of all sorts and opinion polls show a steady decline in confidence in the way the country is governed.
Local government has done relatively well in this regard but is not immune from the wider trends.
And we know of course that our elected representatives could better reflect the population as a whole. Our recent work with the Fawcett Society showed that only 33% of councillors and fewer than one in five council leaders are women, for example.
These challenges have driven a renewed interest in forms of participative democracy. Citizens juries, participatory budgeting and digital engagement platforms are all back on the agenda. And there are exciting large scale initiatives like Every One Every Day in Barking and Dagenham and the 150 Big Local areas.
This is important stuff and all the more welcome because local government’s track record in this area is not as good as it might be. A decade ago there was a big push from DCLG under Hazel Blears to embed the ‘community empowerment’ agenda, but this was met with some resistance. At LGiU, we were commissioned by the IDeA (as was) to produce a toolkit on councillors and community empowerment; we found elected members committed to a Burkean ideal of representation and mainly indifferent or even actively hostile to more participatory methods of government. A couple of years later austerity swept the whole agenda on to the back burner.
So it’s good that it’s back and that there’s now a recognition that when done well this is an addition to representation not a replacement for it. And that’s why it’s crucial not too get too carried away with the idea that representative politics is broken.
First, because this can become a self fulfilling prophecy. Say it enough and people believe it. The historical record shows that this opens up the political space for dangerous forms of populism.
Second, we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water.
Without denying its limitations, representative democracy is still arguably the single most powerful engine for progress, fairness and prosperity that human beings have ever created.
But of course it goes through ebbs and flows and it is better at dealing with some circumstances than others. This has been much explored by political theorists. In his book, Setting the People Free, the political philosopher John Dunn argues that democracy is an adaptive phenomenon that emerged as a tool to deal with a specific set of problems in ancient Athens before transmuting nearly two thousand years later into a more totalising conception of politics, one which Dunn argues has “established a clear claim to meet a global need better than any of its competitors”. But, as he shows, the function of democracy is always determined by the historical and structural conditions in which it operates. This means that while the democratic process can, of course, claim to shape the world it is also always playing catch up with external developments. The political theorist Nadia Urbanati makes a similar point when she agues that the problem is not with representation as such but the capacity of representative institutions to respond to the content and purpose of that representation. Meanwhile, David Runciman has shown in The Confidence Trap how democracy operates though a sort of fuzzy logic that makes it better suited to solving some sorts of problems, those involving adapting to immediate crises, than others, such as those requiring adaptive long term change. In other words, “democracies are good at recovering from emergencies but bad at avoiding them”.
So we are going through a period of evolution right now as the institutions through which we instantiate representative democracy struggle to adapt to a world in which networks not institutions are the primary form of social and political organisation. We are only at the beginning of understanding what this means in practice.
What we do know, however, is that without representation the politics of participation all too easily become about who shouts loudest. And without participation, representative politics can become remote and inward looking.
Representation needs participation to keep it connected and inclusive. Participation needs representation to keep it focused and accountable.
That means that we do not need to choose between them. We need more of both.
Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.