Designing a dynamic democracy

The source of our freedoms, our approach to fairness, and the way the economy works is all underpinned by a well-functioning democracy. 

Don’t believe me? Just imagine how this would all go pear-shaped in a tyranny.

As we take a glimpse into a post-COVID-19 world, we must stop taking our democracy for granted. It wasn’t working that well before the virus. 

We have Donald Trump to thank for waking us up; often the direction the US takes is where the UK follows.

In my book, ‘After the revolution’, I introduce a teaching tool to explain how it is more difficult for a leader to retain power if they need 51 per cent support from the people than a tyrant needing 10 per cent. 

With 51 per cent support, a leader usually needs coalition partners to draw policy, and some scrutiny to ensure issues aren’t hidden. This would probably require a proportional representation (PR) system. 

Contrast this with a dictator who merely needs the support of 10 per cent or less, to fund the army well, look after the rich and powerful, and stay in power.

If a country is stuck in the middle with a system requiring a leader to get 30 per cent to stay in power, there is a tendency to make sure your own supporters are well looked after and no need for a coalition partner to keep you clean. 

Sound familiar? In the UK, a party can get into power with 30 per cent of the electorate.

But PR isn’t enough. Voters need to know the facts about complex issues of local or national importance. Citizens’ assemblies are a way to do this with participants paid and the facts and process publicised. 

I am especially proud that my council, Bristol, is piloting just this.

As we seek to exit a post-truth, public relations-dominated world, we need a serious look at our democracy and to get in the repair people before it’s too late. 

If we don’t, then local – indeed any – government will be without democracy.

Cllr Clive Stevens is author of ‘After the revolution: lessons from local government on designing a dynamic democracy’, available from www.tangentbooks.co.uk.

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