This piece is #6 in the 'Visions for the Future of Democracy' series curated by Involve for its 15th anniversary. We have asked authors to provide their vision or take on democracy 15 years from now.

Forecasting the future is a very risky business. Many past predictions have bitten the dust or have been overtaken by unforeseen events. Some predictions are slower to gain momentum than expected; others are hardy annuals that have never quite made it yet - like work taking up less time, maybe, giving everyone more time for leisure? 

What is the context likely to be? 

A good place to start is with science and technology.  First, we know that climate change is gaining pace.  We don’t know how fast it will be or whether there will be the political will to address it – let alone the technology.  But we know the likely impact:  displaced populations, water and food shortages, livelihoods destroyed, droughts, floods and the decimation of wildlife – it’s all happening now. How profound will its impact be in fifteen years time?  And how will this affect people’s perceptions and the way we are governed? 

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

Public space is disappearing, privatised or built over, reducing opportunities for social contact, especially with people unlike us.

A second given is the further advance of information and communications technology. Fifteen years ago, Facebook was three years old and Twitter had just been invented. Now social media have completely transformed the way we connect, communicate and debate.  The next fifteen years will see further developments few of us could possibly predict but which will have equally profound effects on our lives and our democracy.  What will they be? 

A third issue relates to genetics, which will create new forms of biopower. Do we know yet where it will take us? It could present solutions to intractable problems.  But will it create new forms of inequality, a new eugenics even, benefiting the affluent at the expense of the most vulnerable? 

Of a different order are likely social and political developments. Successive governments talk up devolution. But I see little hope that the increasing centralisation of power will diminish – perhaps I would see things differently if I were Scottish or Welsh. Meanwhile inequality of wealth and income is rising inexorably. The exploitation and neglect of their workers by rich and powerful employers seems reminiscent of Victorian times. The public sphere is being hollowed out, with services privatised, less accountable, less accessible and dependent on ability to pay or wait in ever-longer queues. Access to the law and justice is increasingly denied to all but the most affluent.  Public space is disappearing, privatised or built over, reducing opportunities for social contact, especially with people unlike us. What will be the likely arena for democracy and how accessible will it be?

And while people power sounds like a good thing in principle, the rise of populism reminds us of the pitfalls when it is abused and exploited. 

What are the possibilities?

TED talks, think tanks, leading thinkers all talk up the potential for new grassroots economies, new ways of connecting, local innovation clusters; common forms of ownership, peer-to-peer lending. Some of these, like community business, cooperatives, mutual aid, self-help and other claimed social innovations have a long history but have failed as yet to burst through the power barrier and achieve critical mass. Can this change, as they are enabled or enhanced by new technologies? Or will anything that is remotely successful go to scale? The fate of many housing associations, mutuals and the building societies is not promising. Perhaps, as such initiatives become institutionalised, we will just have to keep on reinventing them at community level. 

Empowerment initiatives emanating from government, meanwhile, have a mixed history. As the 1980s came to a close, many involved in community action might have wished for government to involve us more in decision making, give communities more control. But the subsequent New Labour initiatives to ‘empower’ communities were a mixed blessing in this respect and there was an element of ‘beware of what you wish for’. Nowadays, the talk is all about promoting community resilience.  But this should not mean cutting the most vulnerable communities adrift and leaving them to fend for themselves. And while people power sounds like a good thing in principle, the rise of populism reminds us of the pitfalls when it is abused and exploited. 

Creating space for dialogue

My vision for democracy is all about expanding opportunities for creative dialogue as the foundation for everything else. From school, to local spaces, to cyberspaces, to board rooms, to public authorities and Parliament. Between people with different experiences of life, between different cultures and different viewpoints and between people and the institutions that affect them. Dialogue as a natural and expected way of life, on and off-screen, in as many different ways as will draw people in.  

Democratic dialogue means we need to meet and spend time with people who aren’t like us. So investment in social infrastructure will be as essential as investment in physical infrastructure.

This necessarily starts at school, with an education that will equip children to be citizens, to experiment, to express themselves, and to be creative. Above all, it will equip them to be genuinely curious, valuing the opinions and experiences of others – creating a thirst for the kinds of democracy that could work for us all. Being ‘political’ will no longer be frowned upon. Oh and there will be no ‘public’ schools. 

Heimans and Timms[1] compare ‘old power’, which is closed and inaccessible, with the ‘new power’, enabled by technology – open, participatory and peer-driven. But new power is not all good news, with its bubbles, misinformation and trolling. Can it be harnessed to the cause of a socially just democracy?  I’d say remove anonymity, make people accountable for what they post.  Why should it be any other way? Well before 2037, tech providers should themselves be accountable and their ownership more diverse. Avoiding taxes will attract the same opprobrium as benefit fraud. But there will still be some who cannot access digital technology – resistant perhaps, lacking confidence or simply unable to afford it. So, tackle digital exclusion, make Wi-Fi free to all, share unused data allowances. And recognise the need to combine digital with face-to-face. The pandemic could be used as an excuse for services to go exclusively digital. But surely it has taught us that digital connections need to be enhanced by contact with a real human being. 

Democratic dialogue means we need to meet and spend time with people who aren’t like us. So investment in social infrastructure will be as essential as investment in physical infrastructure. Every neighbourhood and village should have places to gather and connect, so don’t build over everything in sight, especially if it’s just another block of luxury flats. During the pandemic, community hubs were a critical part of the community response[2]. These are places of opportunity where people can meet, discover new things, find the resources they need and where dialogue can take place.  Well before 2037 local communities should routinely have access to community organising support when they need it to ensure that everyone has the chance to be a full part of democratic life. This means: listening to people on their doorstep, outside the school, in the pub; encouraging them to tell and share their stories; connecting people to tackle common concerns; helping them achieve the changes they want to see and to understand how power works; linking them to the expertise they need and with the people who can change the things they can’t; and helping to drive change in the institutions that matter. 

And, all the way from Parliament down, we’ll have politicians who have had real jobs and real exposure to the world outside Westminster. The Lords will be reinvented as a series of Citizens Juries to scrutinise legislation.

Next comes real change in the structures of our democratic system, starting with the local. Why should people engage if they feel they have no influence? So, first, the erosion of local government finance will be reversed, with councils able to raise money through bond issues and other means, along with more flexibility around rates (and of course we need a complete review of rateable values). More powers will be given to town and parish councils. But this is not enough. Local politics and political parties will need to be revitalised if power is not going to just get stuck at a lower level. I’m not sure how to do this – but I want to see more experiments in Frome’s ‘flatpack democracy’ as well as the Preston model, which keeps money local. Maybe local political parties can be part of the revival of social infrastructure – providing opportunities for people to engage in community life and debate in all kinds of creative ways.  

And, all the way from Parliament down, we’ll have politicians who have had real jobs and real exposure to the world outside Westminster. The Lords will be reinvented as a series of Citizens Juries to scrutinise legislation. The one thing that seems to exercise some accountability are the all-party committees so maybe keep those.  Oh and get rid of ‘first past the post’. Proportional representation has its pitfalls, but at least there is a prospect of the number of votes matching the number of seats and people feeling their votes actually count. 

Finally and crucially, democracy depends on ensuring basic human rights.  We can have all the bright ideas in the world but people can only engage if they are safe, fed and sheltered.  People struggling to survive, juggling several unpredictable gig economy jobs, living in insecure, unhealthy and unsafe accommodation don’t have that luxury.  The road to democracy starts here.

[1] Heimans, J. and Timms, H. (2018) New Power, Pan Macmillan

[2] Coutts, P. et al., (2020) Pooling together, Carnegie Trust, UK

Marilyn Taylor is Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute for Voluntary Action Research.  She has a long standing record of research in the community development field and the third edition of her Short Guide to Community Development, written with Alison Gilchrist, is published this month.