We need to reshape the landscape of power, by Richard Bridge

Richard Bridge

Richard Bridge

The discussion at the Better Way roundtable on sharing power on 21 March demonstrated just how many different ways power can be viewed and the number of different ways people and groups respond to power, interact with it and attempt to shape and distribute it.  

In this blog I want to argue, on the basis particular view of power and how it works, that any realistic and practical proposals to respond to the issues thrown up by a critique of Power in our contemporary society cannot avoid measures that seek at crucial points and in forceful ways to disrupt and break down the current flows and accumulations of power in our society at all levels. It can’t be just about trying to help ourselves and others to work better and more effectively within the current power structures and with the current holders of power. 

Finally I will conclude by suggesting that Sortition (random selection by lot) as used for instance when creating Citizens’ Assemblies, is just such a mechanism and one that that the Better Way should explore and maybe consider promoting both at a national scale and also at a local level.

How then do I see/understand power?

Just as with objects in quantum mechanics which can be both waves and particles depending on how you measure and view them, so power can be viewed as both a thing to have, and as a system to navigate. Being powerful can mean therefore either having a lot of it or being good at navigating it.

When we talk of power as a thing that others have and we don’t, or when we talk of the need to redistribute power, we are presupposing that power is finite. Because if power is infinite as some contend then why bother with redistribution, just give those without it more of it to equal things up and leave those who already have it undisturbed. Much less bother! Much less political aggro!

Power loves itself. History teaches us that in all societies, over time, power, whether economic, political or cultural, will concentrate and reinforce itself.  Over time such coagulations of Power will present themselves more and more as Privilege, especially when passed down through Inheritance. 

It is one of the distinctive contributions of liberalism to note that such concentrations are at all times and in all places detrimental to the overall and long-term health of a society, and antithetical to liberty and freedom. Where and how these concentrations will occur in a given society is historically specific, but whenever and wherever they occur they need to be challenged and periodically broken up. (And then done again, and again, and again.)

In the delta of a large river the pilot is all-powerful no matter how big the ship a captain may be helming. The pilot’s power lies in their knowledge of how to navigate this intricate, complex and dangerous environment.  But should a large earthquake or a bomb suddenly and drastically reshape that environment then the pilot is no longer all-knowing and all-powerful. Indeed, for a brief moment everyone is equally powerless as the rules are all new to everyone.  This is a moment of liberation, pregnant with possibilities and providing space and opportunity for new individuals and new groups to arise and become powerful.

Viewed as a thing to have, when we say we want to share power it can sound presumptuous and arrogant. Noblesse oblige. Viewed as something to navigate, sharing power is about lending one’s knowledge and facility to someone else for their own use and aims, walking along side of them, helping guide them at first, building up their knowledge and expertise till they can navigate the delta for themselves. (But what if they don’t want to spend the time and effort to build up their own navigational expertise, just be able to find a good and trustworthy pilot when they need it?)

Many in the Better Way work to try and ‘empower’ people.  We resemble (or like to see ourselves as) the ‘good and trustworthy’ pilot.  But is this enough?

In the delta it is the pilot’s knowledge of the landscape, what in another context we might call ‘the rules of the game’, that makes them powerful.  If we wish to change the relations of power between people and communities, as a practical first step we need to find ways to break up and change the established landscape of power. We have to forcibly change the ‘rules of the game’ in order to create space for new actors and new voices to step in and empower themselves.

In this respect, I think a good place to start is with our electoral system and the political structures and’ rules of the game’ that flow from them. Increasingly, I suggest, if we are honest with ourselves, we innately feel that these are serving us less and less well, and instead serve only to reinforce the power of a selected few ‘pilots’ rather than provide mechanisms for the voices of the many/us to be heard.

In their recent publication ‘The Electoral system and British politics’ the Constitution Society observes: ‘Rather than ensuring stable, cohesive politics, first past the post (FPTP) simply prevents parliament from reflecting the social and political divides of Britain today.  Political debate now occurs as much within the main parties as between them, reducing their coherence, leading to unstable governments and depriving voters of a clear choice at general elections.’ … ‘this is because the psychological effect of the plurality system disincentives major party supporters from voting for a minor party in protest at its policies, since to do so would likely only help the major party’s main rival. Rather than curtailing extreme voices, FPTP today empowers the (relatively) extreme voices of the Labour and Conservative party memberships.’

Sortition is a mechanism that in relation to political power flows and accumulations acts in much the same way as that bomb does when dropped into the delta. No longer would political parties as mechanisms to rally and focus collective power, and the leaders/pilots of these parties, have any role or purpose, so creating exactly the space and opportunity for new voices and previously excluded voices and visions to come to the fore.

Citizens’ Assemblies are already being used in serious and large scale political contexts often exactly to enable a society to find ways forward on key issues that politicians and the traditional workings of power had been unable to. The process of ‘deliberative democracy’ is already used by the UK Parliament. For example, in the UK the Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care currently works with House of Commons Select Committees. Outside the UK, citizens’ assemblies have been used in countries such as IrelandCanadaAustralia and Germany. And most recently one of the key demands of the Extinction Rebellion activists who took over Waterloo Bridge and Oxford Circus was to demand ‘the government … commission a Citizens' Assembly on the Climate and Ecological Emergency to create a roadmap for the UK to navigate through this crisis’.

We have to start somewhere.  We have to have the courage to try new things, even on a ‘suck it and see’ basis.  Our current power structures are ossified and constricting.  Sortition, and Citizens’ Assemblies, both at local and national level, is a good place to start.


Richard Bridge currently teaches Leadership and Management to Third Sector managers for Corndel Ltd. He is an active member of his own local community in Waterloo and is a trustee of the Florence Trust arts organisation.He was Director of Enterprise at Community Matters championing local community action and empowerment.