Reflections from the Labour and Conservative party conferences, where democratic reform was the big idea under the surface.
I came away from the Labour and Conservative conferences heartened. So many discussions included big ideas to strengthen and reform democracy. Reform of the voting system; countering misinformation; and citizens’ assemblies as a core part of our democratic future. These ideas were discussed in the places I expected, including the panels I was part of, but also present under the surface, and in more unexpected spots.
Alex Sobel MP, commented “Democracy is finally catching up with culture” at the Labour conference, (on a panel for SERA, Labour's Environment Network). He was reflecting that citizens’ assemblies are the solution to join the public and decision makers, to develop better policy, find common ground and strengthen trust.
On the same panel Oliver Coppard, Mayor of South Yorkshire, described the Citizens’ Assembly he's running to guide the Combined Authority on climate action, and I added more examples of different public engagement approaches, and talked about how useful a joined up public engagement strategy would be.
Overall, deliberative democracy came out as a strong way to make better policy to help us meet our climate goals.
The previous week, at the Conservative conference, I was on a panel with Sir John Curtice, illustrious pollster and general feature of election night coverage on TV, hearing his majestic roundup of polls and predictions ahead of a general election. Sir John warned Starmer that Labour is profiting from a push away from the Conservatives due to Partygate and Liz Truss’ fiscal event - and will need a more positive vision on the NHS and economy. But the fact that Partygate is still the driver, suggests to me the country has an underlying thirst for a more trusted politics.
Not everyone agreed with the remedies I’d propose for boosting trust in our democracy - giving people the power to change how decisions are made, and who makes them, through participatory and deliberative democracy.
But the ideas were talked about.
In the room.
On the table.
This feels like a change.
Democracy refresh, in particular better public engagement, was assumed as a necessary condition for success, in sessions on everything from AI to health to education to climate. The need for hyperlocal engagement to ensure that levelling up works on the ground. In conversations, MPs, advisors, officials and thought leaders acknowledged that something would be needed to rebuild trust - whether a change of administration happens, or not.
In the good old phrase of Ghandi’s,“first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”. To me this looked like an indicator that the discussion is moving from laughing to fighting. And it helps us argue against this misinformation and get our messaging clearer on what citizen’s assemblies are really about.
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you,
then they fight you, then you win”.
We can’t be complacent though. No significant new commitments were made by any leaders to change the governance of decision making to include the public. So was I in the echo chamber, only talking with those who are sold on the need for democratic innovation?
Perhaps. And after all, it’s important for deliberative democrats to congregate together to swap and improve ideas.
But when a new idea is a good idea, the echo chamber around it expands… until the whole of society gets behind it. At this autumn’s conferences, reforming our democracy and making more space for the public in decision making felt like the big idea whose time is coming.