Popular Understandings of Politics in Britain, 1937-2015


Contact Democracy: A new way of doing politics?

By UoSAnti-Politics |

At Tuesday night’s Policy Network public debate, key note speaker David Farrell praised the value of Peter Mair’s pessimism about formal politics excellently expressed in Ruling the Void, but went on to ask five questions which might put things in a more positive light:

1. Were things ever really better? Less exclusion of access to decision- making based upon gender, race and sexuality, as well as freedom of information, hard-working representatives, consultation and rights to redress.

2. Rather than being in decline, are political parties evolving?

3. Some countries are bucking the trend, such as Sweden or Malta…why is that?

4. New repertoires and forms of participation are emerging, especially among young. As Russell Dalton argues in the Good Citizen, citizenship is moving from duty to follow formal politics to norm of engagement on issues that matter.

5. Democracies are evolving. Research from European University Institute in Florence shows how many reforms in second wave democracies offer citizens broader opportunities to participate than in first wave democracies.

The rest of the talk discussed the role of mini-publics and the Irish Constitutional convention, which involved a mix of randomly selected citizens and politicians. It was suggested that the advantage of involving politicians was that they became strong cheerleaders for the process, whilst citizens clearly rose to the challenge. The degree to which other citizens trust mini-publics is less clear.

Kathryn Perera discussed the success Movement for Change had achieved in their campaign against loan sharks. It was put forward that people will become engaged if they are supported, but that grievance politics takes over it they do not receive support.

Georgia Gould, a Kentish Town councillor and author of Wasted: How Misunderstanding Britain’s Youth Threatens Our Future, responded that young people are engaged, but not on collective identities. Young people do their politics through: spoken word (street poetry), direct action and issue based choices about lifestyle. The problem is that political elites fail to listen and recognise the political nature of such behaviour. A solution could be devolution and co-production; it is at the local level that new individualism and collective action can meet.

Final speaker Anthony Painter, author of Left without a future? Social justice in anxious times, is sceptical of anti-politics and argues that formal politics has struggled to adapt to the emergence of a more individualised, internet-based, contact democracy.

The evening raised several questions: if politics is all single issue, light touch involvement, how is the boring process of achieving change to be done? Mainstream politics has, through marketing and internet-based campaigning, adapted to the new world but at the cost of doing any real politics of collective debate and discussion. Is internet based politics not just another tool with a dark side and no automatic commitment to being on the side of the angels?


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