Talking Democracy: Texel and the Democracy Alive Festival

Self Portrait in Google Coffee

In late April the European Movement organised a festival of democracy (Democracy Alive) on the central square of Dan Burg on the island of Texel in the Netherlands. The organisers invited a large number of organisations to participate including our friends The Democratic Society(DemSoc). The Festival was a big event and open to the public and we felt it was important that Compass had some sort of presence to talk about our work on the Common Platform. 

The sad fact is that I simply can’t imagine a similar, large scale event organised to celebrate and talk about democracy ever taking place in the UK. Especially now, as our existing systems crack open as the strains of Brexit open up long existing fissures. 

What does this say about the UK, the supposed mother of parliamentary democracy?

It was a little strange engaging in political conversations with Europeans where Brexit did not dominate everything. That’s not to say that Brexit was not mentioned, it constantly lay in the background, but merely as one element within a whole range of challenges facing Europe. Of greater concern to many participants was the continuing rise of the ‘populist’ far right and the question of how democrats can counter the threat through reforming and democratising EU systems and governance.

Before going on to describe these conversations, inevitably I did talk about Brexit a lot (if it was not exercising colleagues from the EU it was certainly exercising me!). These are some of the impressions I gained from the conversations. Not just with folk from the ‘Brussels Bubble’ of NGOs and civil servants, but with locals from Texel and other Netherlanders, with Belgians, Croatians, Germans and others.

  • Many thought that Brexit will probably not happen (wish I shared this view)
  • That it would be damaging to our social cohesion to hold a second referendum
  • There was a real sense of loss expressed by people from the lowland countries as well as newer members from Eastern Europe. They see Britain as a playing a key role as a kind of ally. Where our culture and economy is close to the kind of economies of these countries. The UK plays an important role in supporting these smaller countries squeezed between the might of Germany and France  
  • They argued that if we don’t leave it is deeply important that progressives in the UK join with others in the EU to play a central role in the struggle to shape democratic reform of European institutions and decision-making processes

The conversations I had about democracy (in formal events and through conversations) tended to focus on three elements, 

  1. The development of ‘new-municipalism; and its possible impact on encouraging more participative forms of democracy, and creating a kind of movement or block (possibly through movements like the Fearless Cities). 
  2. The increasingly important role of ‘new feminism’ in helping develop a different vision of how politics can and should work (the feminisation of politics – again a central feature of the Fearless Cities movement). A form of politics that is collaborative rather than combative, less hierarchal and more participative.  
  3. The creation of systems to encourage and enable digital democracy. Google had a strong presence in the festival they were keen to tell us why they can help democracy and campaigning. But to be fair they did have a coffee machine that could print a picture of your face in chocolate on a cappuccino, so they get my vote! 

When it comes to digital democracy I got the impression that the techy folk seem to be split into two broad camps, the optimists and the realists (you can see where my prejudices lie). Both groups are agreed that any the creation of workable digital democratic/participative systems need to be free from the Googles and Facebooks of this world. These organisations are not interested in democracy their raison d’êtreis selling data. The creation of effective open and neutral digital platforms can only come via the development of commons based open platforms. 

Broadly speaking the optimists seemed wedded to the notion that the creation of models of digital democracy can be sorted out by developing a technical fix. The realists were rather critical of this view. They argued that, at best digital systems could play an important role in enriching and underpinning face to face forms of conversation and debate, but that was the best we might hope for. 

At one stage I asked the question ‘can you envisage the development of a digital form of a citizens assembly or jury, where the same quality of conversation, sharing information, learning, collaboration and creating relationships could be developed in the near future? Both optimists and realists agreed this was unlikely. Digital democratic platforms could play a key role in helping deepen the work of deliberative dialogues such as citizens assemblies. One of the problems with citizens assemblies is that they only involve small numbers of people. Digital platforms might help extend the level of inclusion.  

One of the things that struck me is that when discussing ideas about how we create a more participative and deliberative democracy pretty much all the conversations began and ended with ideas about citizens assemblies and juries or in creating digital systems. 

Maybe this is because many of those involved in these conversations were involved with NGOs and think tanks based in Brussel. The paradigm they function within is kind of stuck at national and, at best, regional and city level. There was little conversation about how we create a deeper democracy that functions at a neighbourhood and community level. 

This was what my talk was about. My argument was that the political and democratic systems that have dominated the way we do things in the UK (particularly England) has failed and Brexit is not the cause but a symptom of this failure. A system that systematically excludes its citizens from the decision-making process. This is why slogan ‘Take Back Control’ resonated with 17.5 million people. Whilst we urgently need to have our first past the post system replaced by PR and a radical decentralisation of power from Westminster to the regions, towns and cities, this will not address the profound and growing crises in our political and democratic systems. 

The Compass Common Platform project is deeply important because it recognises this reality and argues that whatever happens with Brexit, progressives must start thinking about how we change our failing systems. What do we need, what works, what will get in the way? We need to learn from the myriad of brilliant collaborative and participative initiatives already taking place in the UK and in other parts of the world as these point the way to how we create a deeper democracy.  

Another key element of my talk was to point out the importance of participative practice (community development, community organising and deliberative public dialogue). Those of us engaged in this work have extensive experience of developing participative and deliberative forms of dialogue and decision making at all levels of society, often in communities experiencing high levels of poverty, that is the ‘left behind’ who were so suddenly discovered (and then promptly forgotten) the day after the referendum. 

Well that was the talk, but it was made as a freezing wind whistled into the Demsoc pavilion and the snow came down. My audience shivered through my talk, but we also had a great debate through chattering teeth. 

I came to the festival convinced that holding a second referendum on our membership to the EU would be a mistake, it would cause more political and social harm than good. But I came away from the festival with a changed mind. At the festival I learned in a very tangible way something deeply important about what, despite its weaknesses and failure, the EU is about, and why it is important that we do everything we can to remain a member. Its not so much about the economy, but about the conversations and the relationships between people, it is about sitting in a freezing tent with 12 other people from all over Europe talking about democracy. It is about a million other conversations across Europe that simply would not happen without the EU.