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The Deliberative Society and the Paradox of Political Engagement

The Deliberative Society and the Paradox of Political Engagement

When I started teaching politics back in 2011, the first topic we were expected to cover on the syllabus was the question of declining political participation and engagement. At the start of this century these were seen by many within academic political science as creating a ‘democratic deficit’ in the UK, leading to a problem for the legitimacy of our political settlement. The way that this problem was measured was by examining turnout in elections and engagement with traditional political institutions such as political parties.

The evidence that large parts of society had switched off from politics was clear. From the 1950s to the early 1990s turnout in general elections was regularly above 75%, and well over 80% in the early 50s. By 2001 it had been diminished to 59%, and there was a similarly poor showing in 2005 where only 61% of voters showed up. The British Social Attitudes survey has found that the proportion of people who believe they have a duty to vote decreased from 75% in 1987 to 57% in 2013.

Crucially, the biggest decline in engagement came from the voters with the most precarious stake in society?—?the working class, those who didn’t own their own home and young people. Engagement in elections also remained lower among ethnic minority voters than the white population.

Push-back against this democratic decline thesis came in the notion that our engagement in politics hadn’t decreased, but had mutated. By just looking at elections and parties we were missing what was really going on. The Power Report commissioned by the Labour government and published in 2006 suggested that there was a rise in a ‘new politics’, which was single-issue driven and conducted through unconventional means such as online activism, pressure group membership and protest politics.

While there was some truth in this thesis, Maria Grasso at Sheffield University has demonstrated since that these new forms of political engagement were in fact largely the preserve of the professional middle classes, i.e. they were the domain of those who were already engaged in the more traditional forms of politics. They had not replaced old forms of engagement. They were a supplement for the perpetually engaged.

What caused the growth of apathy among certain groups is complex and difficult to identify. But there are clues in the nature and make-up of the backlash that is now being felt. Beginning in the 1990s, a consensus came to dominate our political institutions and discourse which is probably best summed up in former Labour minister Charlie Falconer’s somewhat oxymoronic belief that the ‘depoliticisation of key decision-making is a vital element in bringing power to the people’. In reality, depoliticisation led to key political decisions being hived off to independent or supranational bodies that were insulated and unencumbered by the pressure of democratic politics. The depoliticisation agenda also entrenched the hegemony of the views and economic interests of the professional middle classes, because both Labour and Conservative parties were fighting for the votes of this group. Over time (and because of the inevitable interjection of events?—?the financial crisis, the Eurozone crisis, higher than usual levels of migration) working class Labour voters and provincial middle class Conservatives eventually found ‘somewhere else to go’ other than apathy. Politics had been restarted.

The idea that politics can be an uncontested field, and that people are mainly apathetic and disengaged seems a long way off now. It is worth bearing in mind that the shift didn’t begin with the EU referendum. It was evident in much of Europe from the end of the 1990s with the growth of populist parties, and (despite the barriers of our first past the post voting system) in the relatively rapid rise of UKIP from fringe element to the UK’s third most popular party in 2015. In the same year we saw the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party and the surge in membership that coincided with this. The referendum was, however, the clearest manifestation of a widespread upsurge of political engagement from those who had previously fallen into apathy.

While it may be true that upending the settlement via Brexit may not solve the severe economic and social decline experienced in many of our post-industrial areas, it is also true that few in SW1 would be thinking hard about these communities if it wasn’t for the Brexit victory. The Labour Party’s engagement with the Centre for Towns agenda promoted by Lisa Nandy MP and Professor Will Jennings is welcome and evident in the party’s recent communications efforts, but it is hard to imagine that a Corbyn-led, urban middle-class Labour Party would have taken this direction were it not for the material and value divisions revealed by Brexit. The referendum result broke the consensus on whose views matter in politics. If the status quo had prevailed, these communities would continue to be ignored, as they had been for many years by a political class that is at best disinterested, at worst disdainful. From this point of view, the decision of suddenly energised voters in provincial towns in June 2016 looks entirely rational.

The reawakening of the political impulse brings some opportunities but also acute challenges. Sudden mass engagement has destabilised politics in the UK, as it is also doing in France and other western countries. In a recent column, the political philosopher John Gray referred to our polity as currently ‘ungovernable’. We have arrived at a paradoxical position: our democratic institutions require our participation for their continued legitimacy and health, but a sudden surge of engagement is currently driving their instability and stress-testing them to breaking point.

The disruption caused by the arrival of previously disengaged voters on the scene has led some to question the efficacy of our representative model altogether. There has been much chatter about ‘deliberative democracy’ as a way to engage a re-energised citizenry in jury-style decision-making bodies. This idea has many merits but it is hard to shake the feeling that it merely perpetuates the illusion that conflicts in values are simply a result of a lack of the right technical information. In this sense, deliberative democracy is a continuation of the depoliticisation agenda; give people not affiliated to political parties and not subjected to electoral pressures the right expert information, and they will agree on the most rational course of action.

But this approach ignores the key insight of the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin: most political questions incorporate appeals to ‘incommensurable values’. In a question about the EU we cannot easily weigh greater prosperity against greater accountability. They are two vastly different things, and it is valid to prioritise either one, while recognising that in doing so we may lose something of the other. It is why a deep knowledge of the EU can produce both Chris Bickerton and Jonathan Portes.

As a teacher of politics, I hoped to do my little bit to increase political engagement and widen political discourse. But one thing I had not thought hard enough about was what it might mean to move very quickly from a culture of anti-politics and widespread apathy to one of intense engagement. Moving rapidly from a situation where we never talk about politics to one where it is regularly and widely debated, often in an impassioned way, is extremely difficult. Constructive and respectful discourse requires that there be a well-established culture of mutual toleration (ironically, something that ought to be present in truly liberal societies).

Nor had I thought much about the effect that a sudden increase in political debate and enthusiasm might have at the level of people’s families and relationships. A sudden political awakening can actually have a deeply unsettling effect on families and relationships?—?something it was hard to understand from the safety of the classroom. Couples divorcing have cited differences over Brexit, and families have fallen out. Frankly, we don’t currently have the skills and the experience to cope with our own political debate, because our political culture and social and democratic institutions have been hollowed out for around 30 years. So while I do not believe that we need to throw the baby out and replace our political institutions with deliberative citizens’ juries, we do need to build a more ‘deliberative society’, one that has the tools to deal maturely with ethical pluralism and incommensurable values and react with seriousness to disagreement and conflict. It is clearly necessary and requires some decisive action.

The most obvious place to start this would be in schools, but we have never really had the courage to teach Politics to our children – this seems to stem from a fear of schools becoming vehicles for political indoctrination. But, done well, political education does not have this effect?—?instead it teaches a deep understanding of the origins of political value divides, their persistence and how they animate political life.

When I think back to the discussions I had with my 17 and 18-year-old students before and after the EU referendum, I realise they were the best I had with anyone. When we talked about divisions in the Conservative Party we discussed the conservative principle of organicism and Michael Oakeshott’s critique of rationalism in politics. When we discussed free movement we didn’t waste time confirming our own prejudices about other people’s levels of xenophobia. Instead we covered the difference between policy being arrived at through market versus democratic mechanisms, whether migration could properly be considered a fundamental right or whether it should be treated as another contentious area of public policy like health or education. Looking at the role of referendums in our democracy we didn’t fall back on a ‘good/bad’ dichotomy. We took referendums in their proper context within UK politics, and their increasing use to determine constitutional issues. We argued about whether the EU question was just a constitutional question (like changing the voting system) or whether we couldn’t limit it in this way because of its profound policy implications. The result was that, on the whole, our discussions were lively but respectful, opinionated but with a clear understanding of contesting viewpoints.

On 24 June 2016, most (although not all) of my students were greatly disappointed. Some of them needed cups of tea and TLC. But they did not fall back on silly explanations or comforting illusions. I never heard one of them describe Brexit as ‘racist’, the referendum as ‘advisory’ or question its legitimacy on the basis that ‘only 37% had voted for it’. They did not attack each other. They took it seriously because they understood it better. These students were not any different from the rest of their peers or especially unrepresentative; many of them had achieved Cs and Ds in their GCSEs. They were ordinary young people who had simply developed the tools, through their study of Politics, to do engagement properly.

We have had two significant attempts in recent years at introducing Politics into schools. The first was the GCSE Citizenship course and the introduction of Citizenship as a national curriculum requirement in 2002. In retrospect this programme was a perfect epitome of the New Labour years. It was rich in technical detail and pretty limited in terms of political and ethical content. The second was the introduction of ‘British Values’ by the Coalition Government in 2014 as a cross curriculum focus. But with its air of cultural protectionism and connections to the Prevent strategy, it has meant that the discussion of political and ethical ideas feels too straight-jacketed.

The model for how this should be done already exists in the A Level Politics syllabus, which combines knowledge of institutions with plenty of discussion of political ideas and ideology and how they relate to political movements and policy positions. Using this model and treating Politics as a discreet stand-alone subject, it should be possible to create a high quality political education for all secondary pupils.

Despite what committed technocrats or populists may want you to think, there is no singular or simple answer to most political questions. There is a series of partial answers, and we must choose between them. Different answers will point to different values and priorities. We need to develop our deliberative abilities to help us understand and cope better with the inevitable political conflicts and contests that come with living in a diverse nation and in a rapidly changing world. Starting with schools, we need to begin building a more deliberative society.

John Gaston


John Gaston is a former politics teacher based out of Brighton, UK, interested in the history of ideas and political thought.

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6 thoughts on “The Deliberative Society and the Paradox of Political Engagement

  1. First, thank you for a very interesting essay.

    As you brought it up, Brexit seems to be a… Turning point maybe? I am here in the states so don’t pay too much attention to the minutia of the whole situation. But I wonder if declining political participation is correlated to increased actions by the EU. All politics is local, as they say, and removing the local from politics might have caused such a discrepancy.

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  2. There is some mixed evidence in the western states of the US, where citizen ballot initiatives are the rule rather than the exception, that such initiatives can drive voting rates up. Voter turnout in my state certainly goes up if there’s a controversial initiative on the ballot. My own anecdotal take is that it’s easier to get people excited about voting on a specific policy than about voting for representatives. Part of that is representatives are becoming ever more anonymous, and come with baggage, both personal and party. So you see examples like Arizona, until recently a deep red state, where the people voted to give Republicans overwhelming majorities in the state legislature, while simultaneously voting to take redistricting power from the legislature and to raise the minimum wage despite the opposition of those legislative majorities. The people favored certain policies supported by Democrats, but not the entire package that comes with voting for Democrats.

    I’m a supporter of initiatives at a state or local level. Not so much for setting national policy, particularly in a country as big (and diverse) in geography and population as the US. At least not without a significant super-majority requirement and national rules for handling elections.

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  3. Voter turnout in America declined from 63.3% in 1952 to 49.0% in 1996. It has since bounced back to around 55%.

    When I read Robert Tombs, “The English and their History” last year, I believe he focused on changes bought by New Labour, such as the professionalization of politics, the neverending campaign, relying on wealthy campaign contributors rather than grass roots membership, centralization of public administration, and new norms for the Prime Minister. I’d have to go back and review the specifics, but other than a strikingly odd devolution of local power to some parts of the UK and not others (odd from an American p.o.v.), a lot of sounded like Americanization to me.

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  4. Great post! It’s exciting to hear that this sort of purposeful education on politics can result in meaningful conversations about politics and policy. I wonder how well this replicated and scales. I would think that that it would do both fairly well. But I admit that I think this because I also think you have to have a lot of things go actively wrong to get to the dysfunctional political conversations that we have today.

    On the issue of less political engagement among the poor, I wonder how much of it can be attributed to the professionalization of social services and government administration. At one point, least in the United States, if you wanted a spot in public housing or a job in local government, you went to see someone from the political party that ran your neighborhood. At the very least you probably voted and maintained your party registration to make sure that some other party boss from some other place couldn’t actively harm your interests. That’s not really the case anymore, at least not in the same manner.

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