This piece is #7 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.

Inequalities have been a long-standing feature of UK society. The Equality Trust reported the growing income inequality in recent years with a dramatic increase in the share of income going to the top earners and a decline in the share of those at the bottom. In 2020, the Runnymede Trust published a landmark study, Ethnicity, Race and Inequality in the UK: State of the Nation, which outlines the extent of ethnic inequalities across the UK across criminal justice, education, employment, housing and health. The Gender Equality Monitor shows that gender inequalities remain such as the gender pay gap and women being less likely to take up public appointments. Compounding these inequalities is that where someone lives also has an impact on how severely these inequalities are experienced. The IPPR report identifies places in the UK which have lower productivity, income and health levels as a result of central government’s prioritisation of short-term economic returns in London and the South East. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the IFS Deaton Review presents evidence of how the pandemic has further entrenched these inequalities. Considering these inequalities, my vision of democracy 15 years from now is one that actively seeks justice for all members of UK society. By justice, I mean tackling the source of inequalities, in the structures of the society in which they arise. 

Rather, I am imagining a deepening of democracy that includes the use of other forms of communication to arrive at society-wide decisions that support the pursuit of justice.

economicpluralism.org

I think of democracy as a process of communication to arrive at society-wide decisions. The dominant model of democracy in the UK is one of aggregation via voting. Individuals communicate their preferences for society-wide decisions via the electoral process. This model is a competitive process where politicians focus on gaining the majority of the votes in an election – their platform seeks to satisfy the largest number of people’s preferences. Recent research by the Policy Institute at King’s College shows that 56% of Britons are concerned about income/wealth inequalities and 51% of Britons are concerned about place-based inequalities. Just 23% are concerned about gender inequalities and 36% are concerned about racial inequalities. Relying on an aggregative model alone would mean that preferences for gender and racial equality might not constitute a large enough share of the votes to become a salient policy issue. Consequently, I think that a model of democracy that relies on voting alone is insufficient. To be clear, I am not calling for less of the aggregative model of democracy. Rather, I am imagining a deepening of democracy that includes the use of other forms of communication to arrive at society-wide decisions that support the pursuit of justice.

In reflecting on what my ideal vision for democracy would be, I realised I did not have a wacky and wonderful or radically different approach to democracy. I believe we are already seeing sparks of my vision for democracy in the present. My vision for democracy in 15 years from now is that deliberative democracy becomes more commonplace. The deliberative model of democracy is one where communication of preferences is based on deliberation; reflective and open-ended discussions between members of the public. Participedia is an amazing resource that curates the various innovations in deliberative democratic processes. However, for this model to support the pursuit of justice, I am drawing our attention back to the visionary work of political theorist, Iris Marion Young, on inclusion and democracy. Young envisions that under conditions of inclusion, political equality, publicity and reasonableness, deliberative democracy can serve as the means of discovering and validating just policies. Other features of deliberative democracy include the use of the lived experiences of groups at the sharp end of inequalities and decentred processes. I would also like to see deliberative forums gain veto power so that just policies are implemented and inequalities are addressed.

However, a pre-requisite condition for different perspectives to be used as a resource is reasonableness; a willingness to listen to others who want to explain to them why their ideas are incorrect or inappropriate.

Inclusion in deliberative democracy means that all those affected by the type of inequality of interest are included in the process of discussion and decision-making. Political equality means that all have equal opportunity to speak, that is they have an equal right to express their interests and concerns. Participants in an ideal process of deliberative democracy must be equal in the sense that no other participant has power over another in a way that manipulates or threaten others into accepting certain proposals or outcomes. 

Publicity means that there is an understanding that the process of deliberative democracy involves a plurality of different individual and collective experiences, histories, commitments, ideals, interests, and goals. As part of the process, members explain their particular background experiences, interests, ideals and goals. This type of discussion will not use argument or debate as the mode of communication so as not to privilege certain speaking norms which could exclude people from sharing their experiences. The inclusion of experiences that arises from living with inequalities becomes a resource in discovering and validating just policies. The communication of lived experience and knowledge derived from the social positioning of those who live with inequalities can provide a more accurate definition of problems or their possible solutions. The different perspectives allow the construction of a more comprehensive account of social structures which reproduce inequalities and the likely consequences of proposed policies.

However, a pre-requisite condition for different perspectives to be used as a resource is reasonableness; a willingness to listen to others who want to explain to them why their ideas are incorrect or inappropriate. Reasonableness also means treat others with respect, having an open mind, making concerted efforts to understand these perspectives however different they may be to one’s own experience.  It is important to note that unity is neither the starting nor endpoint for reasonable publics, rather it should be a curation of brave spaces[1]. Deliberative processes should allow for discussions of contrasting and dissenting views can be heard. The aim is to commit to understanding sources of conflict to work towards common goals. As noted earlier about the plurality of different individual and collective experiences, histories, commitments, ideals, interests, and goals, individuals need to reflect carefully on their own positionality, identity and values so they can choose their words and actions carefully to minimise the harmful impact their words can have on others. Where there are dissenting views, participants can be encouraged to differentiate between a personal attack and a challenge to a mindset/idea/belief. The processes should leave room for participants to consider whether certain aspects of their identities whether that be class, gender, race and so forth bestows on them certain benefits which allow them to choose whether to engage with issues of inequalities.

We need a critical mass of people within organisations with power and resources to make deliberative democracy more widespread.

So far, I have discussed the processes to make deliberative democracy more inclusive and in ways that allow for an intersectional approach to achieving justice. To push deliberative democracy further than where we are now, processes of deliberation need to become decentred so that it is not just a series of discrete projects. Instead, deliberative democracy works as multiple flows of communication and exchanges of perspectives about issues of concern to UK society, over long periods and different spaces. The policy proposals from these processes become the blueprint for decision-making that leads to just outcomes for all members of the UK society. Inclusive deliberative democracy as described above is a mechanism through which people’s basic needs such as food, shelter, health care, and so on are met. In tackling the source of inequalities, inclusive deliberative democracy removes barriers that restrict one’s ability to follow one’s own pursuits. 

Whilst deliberative democratic practices are increasingly being used in the UK, we have not yet reached the promised land of deliberative democracy. Aggregative democracy remains the model of communication for decision-making so deliberative democratic practices are not yet viewed as essential tools of democracy.  Organisations like Involve are presenting the possibilities of deliberative democracy making this deliberative turn in democracy a transition period. To embed the inclusive deliberative democracy described in this blog is a culture change. We need a critical mass of people within organisations with power and resources to make deliberative democracy more widespread. To get to this critical mass, we need to build up a bank of evidence that demonstrates the link between deliberative democracy and just policies. To build up this bank, we need more systemic deliberative democratic practices which seek to tackle different types of inequalities. 

To conclude, I do believe we can deepen democracy 15 years from now and we need democracy practitioners across the country signing up to this agenda. Working together across a range of issues but with tackling inequalities at its centre, we can make this vision a reality.

[1] Arao, B., & Clemens, K. (2013). From safe to brave spaces: A new way to frame dialogue around diversity and social justice. In L. M. Landreman (Ed.), The art of effective facilitation: Reflections from social justice educators (pp. 135–150). Stylus Publishing.

Dayo completed a PhD in Politics at the University of Manchester where she used critical theories such as critical race theory to examine racial equity in UK public services delivery. Her research continues to critically examine racial equity in public services delivery. She is a Trustee at Involve and works as a Principal Researcher at the Young Foundation.