Better Way Politics – note of a discussion among Better Way members, 7th November 2018

Politics has become a dirty word, and many people don’t want to have anything to do with it.  And yet the ancient Greeks had a word for private individuals who were foolish enough not to engage in the public world of politics: idiotes.  Members of the Better Way are starting to imagine what a different, healthier form of politics might look like, what mechanisms might help, and what might attract more people – including the next generation – to want to play a part in political life.

1.      What is wrong with politics?

We sense that politics as currently practised makes it difficult for Better Way practices to flourish. 

This is partly because the system of party politics at national and local levels means that politicians, whatever their good intentions, feel compelled to demonstrate their effectiveness through command and control behaviours, often peddling false certainties, and trading people’s welfare for votes. 

It is also, more fundamentally, because of the way in which everyday political discourse takes place, policy is formed and decisions are made, with suitably qualified  ‘professionals’ in the dominant role, and most people feeling alienated from the political processes that frame their lives. 

We believe that the politics we have at present generates an ‘us and them’ mindset, and the consequences are pervasive across our public culture and our public services.  We can see this in how systems operate, how things are measured, how people are treated, and the effect is dehumanising.  From the perspective of a ‘service user’ the behaviours which our politics ultimately produce are deeply unsatisfactory, as demonstrated in a blog from Love Barrow Families (which works in Barrow-in-Furness with families facing multiple and severe disadvantage):

‘How can you be expected to build a relationship and come to understand each other if it’s already geared up for termination? The person will know that you’re not truly present and not connected to them. Professionals don’t like words such as ‘relationship’ or ‘connection’. They don’t want to be connected to what they see. You can watch professionals trying to hide their own disgust. They become immobile and take on the appearance of someone who has found themselves in the wrong room. They subtly, without the individual knowing, try and find the room that they should be in. And it doesn’t work. The quieter they try to do it, the louder it becomes. They can’t get past their own history and history is never quiet. Just because it isn’t spoken doesn’t mean it isn’t heard. People create systems for this reason until the systems become fluent enough to manage their own anomalies. Rules are issued. Specialised people are brought in to root out values. Values are for walls, front doors and funders. They’re not for the people who desperately need the service. Organisations don’t want you to belong. They want you for your vital statistics. They want you when the humans come to look at the animals in the zoo. Questionnaires, scales of one to ten. Ticks in boxes and tallied at the bottom. Tables consulted. You are this, you are that. People will look for a diagnosis and willingly take anything. It’s what they want and services give it to them. Then they can go out into the world and say,” I am this”. And the world says,” so what, it’s meaningless”. If you’re set up to only look for the symptoms then that is all you will treat. And they will be back because the central issue hasn’t been addressed. Belonging is clouded by issues in orbit. Services target the issues and not the belonging.’

We can also observe the ‘primacy of pain’ in public policy. Painful stories are exploited by a prurient media, and by politicians needing to make an impact, and by public services (including charities) needing to justify their existence, and so they form the basis of much policy making.  This is essentially a deficit model, focusing on (and ultimately reinforcing) the worst not the best.

2.      What are the alternatives? 

Here are two responses:

  • ‘The whole system of democracy needs to be redesigned, with different distributions of power, different means of assigning political legitimacy, devolution of all powers capable of remaining local, extended enforcement of universal human rights. We simply cannot rely on the supreme authority of a single selectorat claiming legitimacy merely by mass vote-casting systems’ (Roger Warren Evans)

  • Maybe we could argue for a different kind of approach to policy-making, which is less certain, less media driven, less dualistic, more ambiguous, tentative, diverse, respecting of many different expertises and perspectives, more attentive and listening, comfortable with not-knowing, accepting that success and failure come in many guises. In other words, a non-political (with respect to today's model of politics) policy-making.  (Charity sector leader)

We reminded ourselves that we are not striving towards a ‘perfect’ political model and that all attempts to establish Utopia have ended in disaster. Any system of Better Way politics needs to accommodate imperfection, learning, and change.

Many of us feel that the more that public policy making can be localised, the better. Debate and decision-making among people who know each other, and have some appreciation of the context of each other’s lives, could help build a better form of politics. But this by itself is not the whole answer: we acknowledge that proximity does not necessarily produce connection, trust, or respect, and not all political questions can be determined at neighbourhood level.

Various forms of participatory democracy can create opportunities for many more people to participate in debate and decision-making.  But allowing more voices to be heard is not of itself sufficient – inequalities and concentrations of power can persist within participatory democracy, with some voices dominating over others.

An important starting point is the recognition of one’s own vulnerability. We must allow ourselves to feel our own powerlessness, unknowing and vulnerability in the face of theirs.  Without that first step, little else is possible.

3.      Power

As Elinor Ostrom has argued, in any group there will be a majority in favour of co-operation, but also a greedy minority who will act to take over. Therefore, it will always be necessary to challenge concentrations of power. There are many mechanisms to do so (an independent judiciary, a free media, proportional representation, a second chamber, an impartial civil service, regulatory bodies, the work of civil society agencies, for example), and these are always under pressure from vested interests, who want to remain in control for their own advantage.

However, we felt that a focus on power alone may not be the way to build a Better Way politics. After all, power is not a fixed quantity and it ebbs and flows.  In physics power is the rate at which energy is transferred, rather than something possessed by an entity.  In many senses politicians and political institutions are less powerful than they would like to believe.

While recognising widespread inequalities and concentrations of power, we need a different foundation for a Better Way politics, one which is less adversarial and starts with the notion of ‘humans helping other humans’ rather than the notion of ‘some humans controlling others’.  We shared some ideas of what this might this look like:

  • Integration: in the face of increasing fragmentation and complexity a core political goal should be to achieve a more connected society.

  • Our practice of politics should be founded upon a shared understanding of the needs we all have, as set out for example by the Centre for Non-Violent Communication (see Annex).

  • Those responsible for designing systems of support should recognise that ultimately people want people who are not paid to be in their lives.

  • Those in leadership roles in political life should foster adult to adult relationships (not parent to child).

  • Political decision-making should be decentralised where possible, according to the notion of subsidiarity, with a willingness to design in local difference (a postcode choice not a postcode lottery).

  • We need a shift in educational practice, in order to bring up a next generation of citizens who have an understanding of their interconnectedness as human beings, have positive strategies to respond to conflict, and also have the belief and confidence that they can change things for the better, that it is possible to be constructively disruptive of prevailing systems.   

4.      Sortition

We also discussed the idea of ‘sortition’ (the use of random selection to populate a decision making assembly), and we believe that this can be extended to other aspects of political life beyond jury service, which is one of our few public institutions which retains general public confidence. 

We understand that juries are effective in the criminal justice system for several reasons:

  • They enshrine a popular principle (that we are all equal before the law);

  • They are associative (a group of twelve people is needed to reach a common decision);

  • They have access to advice from people with a depth of professional knowledge (barristers, expert witnesses, judges, court clerks).

We think that if sortition were to become more widespread in political life equivalent mechanisms would be needed to maximise the chance for success. We felt it would be useful to engage those with greater expertise on this subject (eg Involve, Sortition Foundation etc).