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a deeper democracy

ideas – conversations – campaigns

'Neoliberal democracy. Instead of citizens, it produces consumers. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls...In sum neoliberalism is the immediate and foremost enemy of genuine participatory democracy'

Noam Chomsky

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Towards a Deeper Democracy

An Inquiry

The launch of this web site is also the launches ‘Towards a Deeper Democracy’ (simultaneously published by Compass). 

The pamphlet aims to encourage thinking and debate on some of the theoretical and practical issues related to the creation of a deeper democracy. 

  • Why do we need reform?
  • Whats the starting point
  • How might it work
  • What skills and resources are needed
  • Learning from existing practice
  • Learning from past government policy
To help kick things off Gabriel Chanan has added a critique of some of the points made in pamphlet. I will add other comments relating to the pamphlet below. Ive added some questions raised by Gabriel and others on the right, please feel free to respond to them or add your own.


 Our existing political and democratic system is in trouble with many feeling they have no say in what happens to them, their families and communities. This is why the seemingly empty pro-Brexit slogan ‘take back control’ resonated with so many. The horrific tragedy of Grenfell Tower Block exemplifies a fundamental truth, that even when a community is well organised and active, it can still have little or no power. The concerns of communities are ignored and community representatives are dismissed as the ‘usual suspects’.

The fact that a high percentage of citizens feel this way should be of central concern to progressives quite simply the  struggle to create a deeper democracy is indivisible from the struggle to achieve social justice and the creation of a more equal society.

In recent years demands for democratic reform has been dominated by campaigning for proportional representation (PR). However whilst PR would be would be welcome it is unlikely to have much impact on the many who feel so disempowered. But there is a growing consensus that we need a more radical reform than simply tinkering with our voting system. Increasingly politicians and organisations, including the Electoral Reform Society, argue that we need to incorporate participatory and deliberative approaches into a reformed democratic system. A view shared in other parts of the world with the creation of new types of political movements such as  Podemos in Spain and the Alternative (Denmark) founded on the principles of participative and deliberative planning and decision making.

In the UK and worldwide there is a plethora of successful initiatives founded on participative and deliberative decision making processes. Some such as the participative budgeting process in Porto Allegre,  Seattle’s Neighborhood programme, and the ‘Flat Pack Democracy’ process in Frome in Somerset, are well known. But there are thousands of other very local initiatives that are barely known beyond the areas where they are based. 

A key factor behind the success and longevity of many is that they are based in neighbourhoods. Neighbourhoods are important because this is where most people experience power (or lack of it) and where changes in the power relationships are often most tangible. 

It is estimated that there are approximately 163,000 voluntary groups and charities in the UK, of these more than 60% (about 99,000) are small, community based groups, run by local residents for the benefit of their community. It is also estimated that annually about 15.2 million people are involved in voluntary activities of some form. About 19% (that is 2.6 million) are involved with small community groups. This contrasts with only 6% (approx 858,000) who are involved in traditional political activity. A point worth making when lazy politicians complain of ‘voter apathy’. 

A future progressive government that is committed to the creation of a deeper democracy must recognise that it needs to be based on a fundamental shift in the relationship between citizen and state. A shift from the present exclusionary system to one based on the principle that citizens have a fundamental right to participate in the planning and decision making processes. It needs to also recognise that whilst the strategy needs to start with neighbourhoods, in parallel there needs to be fundamental structural changes in the way local, regional and national governments function and it must be based on the previous experience of the last Labour Government, and what has been shown to work. 

Summery of Responses

Nick Beddow (ex CEO Community Development Exchange, community development practitioner and manager)

  • ‘an excellent contribution’.
  • A coalition of facilitators is a great idea but notoriously difficult to achieve – the competition for a contracts, worse than ever under austerity,  has engendered territory-grab amongst the so-called progressives too.
  • Perhaps more on the participatory democracy lessons from Peoples Assemblies and Occupy? https://www.theguardian.com/profile/tim-gee… which raises a question about how to move beyond passivism to seize daily life in creative action – ie beyond CD (CD sometimes feels like a Dixieland revival when there’s more exciting and living Direct Action activity to celebrate too?) 

Nick Mahony: Independent researcher, Administrator of the Raymond Williams Foundation and Compass associate with lead responsibility over the ‘New Democracy element of the Common Platform


Thanks Colin – this is definitely useful from my point of view – thanks for sending. 

Personally, I’m also edging more and more towards a position which advocates that structural changes to end austerity and policies to radically challenge wealth inequality and racism are just as important as the need to dramatically expand democracy. So I think we have lots in common here. 

Expanding democracy for me is also about supporting a full range of activities, including processes to democratise energy, education, the food system, cultural policy, the media and tech, the workplace and other areas, just as much as local community development and local govt. I think collective ownership, democratic control of public services, devolution, regional banks all cd be v important too – as could more Westminster-centred forms of constitutional and electoral reform.

Personally, I’d therefore campaign to maximise the chances for popular involvement in the process of democratising and expanding democracy at all levels. I’ll send you something I’ve started writing about this soon. 

Finally, the slight issue I have with citizens juries, deliberative assemblies and suchlike is that I think they are dramatically limited at the moment by the context they are operating in – and it’s not just that govt doesn’t support them enough but that this ‘model’ currently exists in a society where the conditions for participation are radically unfair; where such processes will lack substantive connection to political institutions until the institutions change and are democratised; and because we also have a context in which the status of expertise and dominant forms of knowledge is far weaker or at least more contested than ever. This, in turn, means we’re furthermore in a situation where the status of lay expertise/public knowledge is in massive flux, or at least is currently being renegotiated. The idea that it’s possible to depoliticise deliberation processes in such a context is likely to be massively questioned, esp in a situation where people are increasingly happy actively participate in more politicised forms of collective knowledge and practice generation too.

I’m obviously not against the idea of deliberation per se! I’d just like to see these kinds of approaches take their place, in and alongside wider debates about the growing array of contemporary forms of democratisation activism. Deliberative techniques are not necessarily always superior, or ‘the most progressive’ in all situations and are certainly not the most ‘radical’ either, at least in terms of all the different proposals for democratic expansion that are out there at the moment. 

To develop a campaign for democratic expansion that has popular support and thereby support from the progressive parties, we’ll need to advocate a process of democratic expansion that people can see is ambitious and could work to change everyday life for the good for most people etc. I think this is part of what we’re trying to conceive of collectively via the Common Platform democracy project.
What do you think Colin?
All the best,

Some Questions

To what extent could the introduction of PR address answer citizen disaffection from the present political?

Should deepening democracy  begin with communities? 

Can ‘co-productive’ neighbourhood partnerships genuinely empower communities. Or will council officers and elected politicians always dominate things?

If you were appointed to advise a new government on a radical strategy for deepening democracy what would would be your advice?

Did the last Labour government contribute anything to empowering communities?

An important part of the Common Platform being developed by Compass is the creation of a vision of a ‘new democracy’ what should this contain? 

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