An election now seems inevitable, and while this should gear us up for one of the fights of our lives, making sure the next Prime Minister is a socialist cannot be an end in itself. Achieving democratic socialism requires not just the transfer of the levers of power from rightwing politicians to leftwing politicians, but a radical transfer of power and wealth from the elites to the people. This is about far more than fixing electoral democracy, and requires a total rethink of the state, and a democratisation of the way that we make and deliver policy.
At The World Transformed festival in Brighton this year we are going to try to do just this. We want to use everyone’s knowledge, experience and ideas to create policies designed to build a society that works for people.
“when we go into government, we all go into government together” – John McDonnell
Over four days, hundreds of people will participate in a series of ‘policy labs’. Together we’ll discuss the issues in a given policy area, challenge existing proposals, and think up new solutions. The results will be written up by volunteers and put together to create a manifesto for our movement, which will be presented to John McDonnell MP, Ed Miliband MP, Hilary Wainwright and Faiza Shaheen on the final day of the festival.
Our aims are simple but far reaching: we want to create a sense of agency and ownership for people within the Labour Party, and the political process more widely; encourage participants to move beyond critiques of the current system towards more tangible policy proposals and solutions; and inspire the Labour Party to think radically about policy areas that need further debate.
The manifesto will be broad – covering a range of issues from drug policy to media reform – but certainly not comprehensive. We hope the document itself, far from being a finished product, will be an example of the kind of policymaking we could and should be doing as part of all policy-making.
There is nothing new about deliberative policy making. Many countries have much stronger history of deep democratic participation, not least many Latin American countries where it is embedded into local government. Iceland’s recent assembly on constitutional reform also demonstrated the possibility of devolving power to people, though unfortunately a new right wing government refused to implement its recommendations.
There has also been an increasing interest in deliberative processes as part of political movements themselves. Projects like the Leap Manifesto in Canada and the The Next System Project in the USA show what local groups with some passion and imagination can do to address the systemic challenges of today. The Labour Party itself has started to test these ideas with the National Policy Forum and the much anticipated Democracy Review, which is trying to put political education and participatory ways of making policy at the heart of the project.
As these kinds of projects become popularised, it’s important that we are clear about what we mean by deliberation. Much of our modern democracy – parliamentary elections, referenda and opinion polls – treat opinions as though they are static. They might be swayed by a newspaper headline, but ultimately they are things we possess and the job of our democracy is simply to harvest them. The truth is, of course, that our opinions are constantly developing. Deliberative democracy recognises this, and aims to create a process by which we can offer our best, collective solutions to a problem.
We are all experts
For us, there are two crucial elements that this process must include. The first is assimilating information. Done well, deliberative democracy should avoid putting ‘experts’ on a pedestal. Instead, we are all experts because we all live under capitalism. If the aim of policy making should be to provide the basis for people to live good and fulfilling lives, then we are, ultimately, the greatest experts in our own experience. But specific topic-expertise clearly does have a role. How am I going to give a view on trade policy with no knowledge about how it works? The important thing here is to ensure that expertise is the slave to democracy, and not the other way around.
There is nothing politically ‘neutral’ about most so-called evidence, least of all the cost-benefit analysis that sits at the heart of modern policy making. Social and economic science is seeped in assumptions and values, and much depends on the questions you ask and the methods you use. So, while democracy must not be a slave to technocratic evidence, we do need to understand it, to challenge it and use it to shape own opinions which are ultimately based on values and experience as much as ‘facts.’
Dialogue and solidarity
The second crucial ingredient is dialogue. In some views of democracy, voting is a fair way to balance everyone’s personal – often economic – ‘self-interest’. Under democratic socialism, deliberative democracy must be a process of building solidarity. We can only do this by listening to each other, understanding how our experience differs.
This point is crucial. If we are going to create policy by and for the many we must make sure that this ‘many’ puts those who are most socially and economically marginalised at the forefront.
attempts to speak for the ‘will of the people’ can too often be co-opted by the right
That means not only making sure these most affected by an issue are in the room, but also recognising that the inequalities that exist in capitalism- in confidence, sense of entitlement and privilege – will also be present in democratic processes. In order to challenge them we need to privilege the voices of those most marginalised by any particular issue and recognise that attempts to speak for the ‘will of the people’ can too often be co-opted by the right.
Clearly we cannot learn everything we need to know, or hear all the perspectives we need to hear, in an hour and a half policy lab. Working out ways to learn together, and have better quality, more productive dialogue is a project that must be woven into the way our movement operates. Rather than being merely an army of foot soldiers tasked at winning elections, we need to be getting ready to shape the next government and hold it to account. As McDonnell boldly claimed “when we go into government, we all go into government together.” This is an enormous responsibility and one for which we, as a movement, need to be ready.
The astonishing rise in leftwing political education across the UK over the past few years – not least through The World Transformed itself – will be fundamental to this success. Reading groups, workshops and lectures are springing up around the country, inside and outside the Labour Party. This is a project that TWT365 – our year-round political education programme – aims to support. One of the challenges now is to knit these conversations together with the process of decision-making in the Labour Party, and then within government.
We hope the manifesto will be a living, breathing document that we can share with Transformed events across the country. We want local groups to add their own ideas and issues, and for the manifesto to be iterative and constantly evolving. What local education issues concern communities in Birmingham? How should Newcastle deal with a specific issue on the NHS? In this sense, the manifesto is just the beginning of a democratic process that will involve communities from across the country and make us all feel like our voices are being heard again. Brighton is just the start; we hope to see you there.