Archive for the 'Democracy, power and security' Category

The subversion of democracy


Henry Tam

Bristol University Press talks to Henry Tam, a leading expert on the threats against democracy and what should be done to counter them.  In addition to his academic work as a political theorist, he was in charge of the Labour government’s policies for civil renewal and community empowerment in the 2000s.

Henry’s new book Whose Government Is It? is out today.

BUP: More and more we hear that leaving people to vote with little understanding of the key issues is a recipe for disasters. Brexit, Trump, the resurgence of the far right – how worried should we be?

HT: There is something rotten indeed with the state of our democracy.  Instead of ensuring people’s informed views and concerns are taken into account by those who govern on their behalf, democracy has been subverted by the use of private wealth and large-scale deception to skew political decisions.  If we allow it to continue, we will keep sliding ever closer towards arbitrary rule.

BUP: But isn’t it true that most people are not interested in politics and they don’t want to be involved with the business of government?

HT: People are not interested in petty party-political squabbles, but very few can be indifferent about how their lives are affected by what those with ruling power may or may not do.

For the last 50 years, around a third or more of adults in the UK and the US have not bothered to vote in elections, because they believed it would not make any difference. Among those who vote, an increasing number are unsure if they can trust politicians, while there is an alarming trend over the last decade with people supporting demagogues who want to impose solutions and do away with public accountability.  We have seen those siding with the radical right winning support in elections and referendums across Europe and America.  And they will use and abuse the power they get to advance their own agenda regardless of the harm it brings to others.

BUP: So what can be done?  Are we to stop people voting for certain groups or policies, and wouldn’t that be anti-democratic itself?

HT: Democracy is not the same as letting people do whatever they want. It is a system for enabling people to cooperate in reaching informed decisions about what should be done collectively for their common good. As long as we allow democracy to be stripped of its true meaning, we leave the door wide open for it to be subverted.

There are a number of actions that need to be taken urgently.  As I set out in my book, Time to Save Democracy, we must have a comprehensive set of reforms that will ensure the minimum conditions for the functioning of democracy are adequately met.  These cover the nine strategic areas of:

Shared Mission: To develop common objectives and cultivate solidarity;

Mutual Respect: To tackle the spread of discriminatory behaviour;

Coherent Membership: To clarify terms of citizenship and strengthen people’s sense of belonging;

Collaborative Learning: To raise understanding of what objective enquiry entails;

Critical Re-examination: To counter dogmatism and support open scrutiny of claims;

Responsible Communication: To stem the flow of misinformation and promote fact-based discussions;

Participatory Decision-Making: To enable people to shape the decisions that affect them in an informed manner;

Civic Parity: To curb widening inequalities and redistribute power and resources to create a level playing field for fair cooperation;

Public Accountability: To debunk the deregulation mantra and ensure people with power over others are held to account for their actions.

BUP: In the meantime, what can people do in the absence of your proposed reforms?

HT: As we press for these reforms, we should in parallel adopt arrangements and practices, which are known to facilitate cooperative working between state institutions and citizens, improve people’s quality of life, and raise satisfaction with public actions.

In my latest book, Whose Government is it?, I brought together a group of experts who have extensively examined, developed, and implemented participatory and empowerment processes to explain how to establish them in practice.  Their contributions to the book provide the reasons and guidance for developing the capacity for effective democratic engagement, and setting up the appropriate arrangements to sustain informed cooperation.

BUP: What do you say to people who insist that we cannot afford to spend precious time and resources on consulting the public when it is not only costly, but could land us with damaging decisions?

HT: The truth is that we can’t afford to let the gap between citizens and their government widen any further. Token consultation and corrupted participatory practices are of course worse than useless, but that’s precisely why we must focus on getting the necessary framework and suitable approaches in place.  Democracy has the greatest potential, if we work on it, to advance the common good, safeguard personal well-being, and improve efficiencies.  But neglected, its subversion will plunge countless citizens into insecurity and exploitation.

BUP 4811_WHOSE GOV IS IT 6.18_12.jpgWhose Government Is It? by Henry Tam is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £19.99.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

A democratic answer to neoliberalism and authoritarianism

bryn (2)

Bryn Jones


Mike O’Donnell

Bryn Jones and Mike O’Donnell, editors of Alternatives to neoliberalism,  examine the problems of authoritarian nationalism and explain that the best hope for greater equality and quality of life lies with people themselves, and in more, not less democracy. The paperback of Alternatives to neoliberalism is out now.

When the hardback edition of our co-edited book was published in early 2017, it was the long, harsh aftermath of the 2007-8 financial crisis and subsequent recession – encapsulated in the term ‘austerity’ – that we challenged and sought answers to.

Along with a growing number of progressive critics and politicians, we named the extreme free-market ideology of neoliberalism as the underlying cause of the economic and social disruption that still persists. Alternatives to neoliberalism offers a range of democratic and egalitarian alternatives from progressive academics and policy practitioners. Their answers apply now even more urgently and provide a concrete vision of a participative society in which power is exercised by citizens, routinely in the communities and institutions in which they engage, and through robust systems of accountability at regional and national levels.

In the last year the need to defend and extend democracy and social justice has become even more acute. The neoliberal theorist, Fredrick Hayek, was a proponent of ‘the free-market’ but tended towards political and social authoritarianism so that business could be executed with the minimum of inconvenience. One man’s freedom…

“Liberal capitalist regimes, especially neoliberal ones, tend to respond to economic crisis and the social protest it provokes, with a shift to authoritarianism.”

However, the current resurgence of authoritarianism in many parts of the world, notably in the United States, Eastern Europe and Russia, and the Philippines, is not significantly the product of theoretical thinking – rather the opposite.  Liberal capitalist regimes, especially neoliberal ones, tend to respond to economic crisis and the social protest it provokes, with a shift to authoritarianism. Thus, they impose austerity on the majority in order to pay off debts caused mainly by financial speculation. The cry ‘we are all in this together’ rings out and populist nationalism is offered as the antidote to ‘the peoples’ complaints.

In reality, political turbulence following economic chaos serves to obscure the real causes of crisis and misleads popular opinion. ‘Taking back control’ in terms of sustained democratic participation is a fair description of what is least likely to happen. Alternatives to neoliberalism seeks to make these processes transparent and to offer solutions.

“…populist leaders and supportive media frame ‘the solution’ in terms of a supposed long-suffering national majority and ‘others’.”

Authoritarian nationalism typically couches the promise of restoring economic prosperity in terms of cultural inclusion and exclusion. These two aspects are rhetorically conflated as populist leaders and supportive media frame ‘the solution’ in terms of a supposed long-suffering national majority and ‘others’, frequently recent migrants or more established but easily differentiated and scapegoated groups. This was the scenario in inter-war Germany and is currently being played out in numerous parts of the world, if for now in somewhat less brutal terms. Why ‘we’ behave in this way is not best explained in terms of the psychopathology of the few – although that has some traction – than in the exploitation of insecurity and want.

It need not be so. The message of our book is fundamentally optimistic. Sceptical of the sustained intentions of remote elites to deliver on electoral promises, we believe that the best hope for greater equality and quality of life lies with people themselves, in more, not less democracy.  However, we mean this not in terms of current populist bombast but in the extension of citizens’ engagement and rights.

Thomas Marshall’s classic book on citizenship published in 1950 chronicles the development of a trilogy citizen’s rights in Britain; civil (legal), political and social. We advocate a fourth phase in the accretion of citizen’s rights: the development and implementation of democratic participation and accountability from the bottom to the top of society. Already many community and voluntary organisations as well as more formal organisations such as trade unions and small businesses contribute to sustain their localities.

Anna Coote, a contributor to the book, argues for a ‘new social settlement’ that would channel capital and resources ‘upstream’ drawing on civic organisation and vitality, leaving to residents more control of expenditure and development be it, for instance, in social care, additional educational and leisure facilities, community enterprise, and the maintenance and protection of the environment.  A complementary policy presented in the book would require supermarkets to negotiate and contract for the provision of certain services such as sourcing a minimum quota of local produce and/or meeting enhanced environmental standards.

“Such redistribution of power as we are currently seeing is into the hands of populist politicians.”

Building a more participative society will take organisation. Like any major change it has a political as well as a socio-economic dimension. It requires a redistribution of power. An increase in democratic participation in locally based institutions of, for instance, big business, education and in budget allocation will cumulatively have major regional and national implications. If sustained it will create a participative democratic society. Such redistribution of power as we are currently seeing is into the hands of populist politicians.

After the virulently totalitarian inter-war bout of authoritarianism and the war required to defeat it, there was a widespread desire for social reform. That reform, Marshall’s third phase of citizens’ rights, has been pushed back and as a priority must be defended and re-established. But beyond necessity awaits the tantalising possibility of a society of meaningful participation and opportunity.

Jones_Alternatives to neoliberalism [FC]Alternatives to neoliberalism edited by Bryn Jones and Mike O’Donnell is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for £20.79.

Find out more about impact, influence and engagement at Policy Press here.

Policy Press newsletter subscribers receive a 35% discount – sign up here.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

We need more experts participating in political debates: Continuing the legacy of Professor Carol Weiss


Iris Stucki, the winner of the 2017 Carol Weiss Prize for outstanding early career research, discusses her winning article, ‘The use of evidence in public debates in the media: the case of Swiss direct-democratic campaigns in the health policy sector’. The article is published in Evidence & Policy and is free to access for 3 months.

Arguments referring to evidence are rare in Swiss direct-democratic campaigns. I took 5030 media items and analysed how many of them made a reference to evidence. At less than 7% the result is sobering, and experts, the actors that make most use of evidence in their arguments, are also scarce.


Why is this result of deep concern?

The success of democracy depends on an informed public. To be able to make good decisions, voters need to receive information about evidence, in particular evaluation studies, showing whether a policy works or not. Of particular importance for Swiss voters in deciding about a policy is the campaign coverage by the mass media. Here, debates between actors with different interests take place and arguments from both proponents and opponents are conveyed. And here, political arguments could be substantiated by evidence.

“The success of democracy depends on an informed public.”


Political use of evidence

Political use of evidence takes place when evidence is used to legitimise a predetermined position. Political use of evidence has had negative connotations for a long time, because, research has often been intended for use in improving and adapting political measures, rather than being used in political arguments. However, the positive view of the political use of evidence recognises that evidence is open to interpretation. Against this background, the use of evaluation studies and other research to support political arguments is nothing to condemn. On the contrary, presenting different evidence-based perspectives enriches political debate. As early as 1979, Carol Weiss stated that research, to the extent that it supports the position of one group, “gives the advocates of that position confidence, reduces their uncertainties, and provides them an edge in the continuing debate”.

My analysis of the use of evidence in direct-democratic campaigns shows that evidence is almost exclusively used in a political way. The good news is that the Swiss media display proponents and opponents in their political use of evidence in a balanced way, that is, pro and con arguments are conveyed in a similar proportion. The bad news is that not all of the actors are given equal coverage. Journalists and politicians dominate the discourse, while experts, the actors most likely to ground their arguments in evidence, appear most rarely. One way to improve this situation would be for the media to integrate experts to a greater extent in their reporting. The simple solution, a fruitful collaboration between journalists and experts seems to be complicated in reality.


Knowledge-based journalism

In an ideal world of knowledge-based journalism, journalists serve as explainers of science and facilitators of evidence-based discussions while experts recognise that they have a role to play in educating the public in policy debates. However, such collaboration seems to be tough for experts especially, as they have to be convinced that they want to participate, to take position and to eventually let go of their knowledge. This is best illustrated by a statement in a discussion forum on the question why there are so few experts in political debates. One discussant said that experts have to abandon a part of their identity as scientists when intervening in the world of politics, and have to show idealist ambitions to engage in political debates.

“Ultimately, both journalists and experts are in pursuit of the same goal: an enlightened public to avoid the emergence of a post-truth democracy.”

But perhaps this is the path to take. Ultimately, both journalists and experts are in pursuit of the same goal: an enlightened public to avoid the emergence of a post-truth democracy. Thus, I close with a call for more experts to participate in political communication. I draw, again, on Carol Weiss, who recognized 20 years ago, that experts have the capacity and the responsibility to actively present evidence in the public arena and explain its scope and relevance to citizens. I am convinced that when experts who are involved in the production of evidence collaborate with journalists and publicly share analysis that is relevant in the political world, they both contribute to making democracy more evidence-prone, and citizens more enlightened.


Iris Stucki is deputy head of the Federal Office for the Equality of People with Disabilities in Switzerland. She received her PhD in Public Administration in 2016 for her dissertation on the use of evidence in direct democracy. Her research interests cover evidence-based policy making and voting behaviour.

Her article ‘The use of evidence in public debates in the media: the case of Swiss direct-democratic campaigns in the health policy sector’, published in Evidence & Policy is free to access for 3 months.


If not a hard Brexit, then what?


Janice Morphet

Now that a ‘hard’ Brexit seems less likely, Janice Morphet – author of Beyond Brexit? – looks at alternative options for the UK’s relationship with the EU.

“Following the apparent disruption of hard Brexit that has followed the General Election, it is now time to review the other options available to the UK.

It would have been better to review these before the referendum was called and to explain the options to more fully inform the electorate during the campaign. Even after the referendum result, a review of the options would have been helpful rather than the incoming Prime Minister opting for the hardest form of EU/UK relationship without appreciating the paradox that her social welfare agenda could best be achieved using EU values, programmes and policies.

However, better late than never. So what are the real options available rather than those frequently suggested by those politicians less familiar with the EU?


The European Free Trade Association (EFTA)

The most frequently discussed approaches are the potential for the UK to return as a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). This was set up in 1960 by the UK as an alternative free trade bloc to the EU when the UK realised that it had made a mistake in dismissing membership of the then Common Market. Its members are now Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. While EFTA works as a group on some issues, its members have different relationships with the EU. This might suit the UK, but Norway has already indicated that it may not take the UK back into EFTA membership. How do these relationships work individually?

Continue reading ‘If not a hard Brexit, then what?’

What now for Brexit?


Danny Dorling, Dimitris Ballas and Benjamin Hennig

Danny Dorling, Dimitris Ballas and Benjamin Hennig – authors of The human atlas of Europe – look at the reasons behind Labour’s success and ask… what now for Brexit?


“On June 8th 2017 young people all across the UK turned out to vote for a new conception of politics and a more inclusive, nourishing vision of society (as New Internationalist journalist Chris Brazier put it).

The rise of Labour in the polls in the month before the election was three times greater than any rise ever seen for that party in a month before. The swing in the vote to Labour was greater than that measured at any general election other than the 1945 landslide election. To be fair to Jeremy Corbyn it was actually even greater than that, as that 1945 swing took ten years (from 1935) to occur. In contrast, Labour’s swing in 2017 emerged within just two years of the last election (held in 2015).

Despite the enormous success in the polls and the voting booths it was not enough for Labour to win. The party had started so far behind in 2015 that a completely unprecedented swing would have been needed for outright victory. Labour’s four week surge in the polls would have had to have been not just three times greater than it had ever been before, but five, six or seven times – depending on exactly where that swing had been geographically concentrated. An outright Labour victory in June 2017 was nigh-on impossible in the circumstances, not least of a split Labour party.

But what Labour achieved was enough to put the Conservatives into the demotion zone of now being a minority government.


“..greater solidarity is gaining in popularity over division.”


Continue reading ‘What now for Brexit?’

Compromise, sacrifice and confusion: why I didn’t vote

Lisa McKenzie

Lisa Mckenzie

by Lisa Mckenzie, author of Getting By; Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain.

“I didn’t vote in this election, which for me was the right choice, and a choice that is seldom given debate to within the national media.

My reasons were this: our political system asks us to vote for members of parliament to represent us in Westminster. I didn’t want any of the people on my ballot paper to represent me.

I also don’t think the system of parliamentary political party politics is truly democratic. It serves the greater good, it compromises what individuals believe in order to serve a middle, a mainstream, and a mediocre. It always has to sacrifice something, and someone, and the sacrifice is usually those with least power. I cannot endorse that.

“…the sacrifice is usually those with least power.”

The Labour Party have annoyed me for a long time (forever actually) but especially over the last two years.

I have been involved in many grass-roots organisations and campaigns and I know how difficult it is to keep people’s confidence up when they are having all kinds of institutional power thrown at them from all spectrums of political ideology.

However over the last two years this situation has become much worse, with the internal fighting of the Labour party. Many Labour supporters as well as politicians have taken sides and instead of being an opposition to the Government that has caused so much misery to the poorest people in the UK, they have opposed each other.

Continue reading ‘Compromise, sacrifice and confusion: why I didn’t vote’

It’s Time to Change Our Approach to Change

While many are wary of Donald Trump’s next steps as president, others are eagerly anticipating the changes that their chosen candidate has promised them. However, is voting really enough to incite progressive economic change? Joel Magnuson, author of From greed to wellbeing, argues that we must all do much more to bring about real change to society. 


Joel Magnuson

Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House does not signify a new beginning or a new era.

Quite the opposite – Trump and his band of reactionaries symbolize the last gasps of a greed-inspired economic system that is crumbling into obsolescence. But like so many instances of imperial decline, this can also signal a time of regeneration. Like the yin and the yang, disintegration and renewal are both aspects of the same process of change. And change we must.

Climate change, financial system instability, and global resource depletion remain the most profound crises of the 21st century, and they cut across all national boundaries and cultural identities. As we look to the future and at our current circumstances, it seems clear that societies everywhere will have no choice but to completely rethink how to address these major problems in our economies. Particularly in the United States.

Continue reading ‘It’s Time to Change Our Approach to Change’

Brexit and working-class politics

the-rise-of-the-right-updated-fc-4webTo mark the timely publication of the ebook of The rise of the right by Simon Winlow, Steve Hall and James Treadwell, we are offering the postscript to the book FREE on our website.

Read the intro here, then click on the link to download.

We wrote the majority of this book in 2015. Our project was at an end by the time the nation went to the polls in June 2016 to vote on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union.
Roughly 52% of those who voted wanted to bring Britain’s membership to an end. More than 33.5 million people voted in the referendum, and almost 17.5 million people voted to leave.
Most columnists, commentators, pundits and broadcasters – and the enlightened liberals who dominate our academic institutions – were shocked by the result. They just could not understand how and why so many voters had been persuaded by the fearmongering of the Leave campaign. How could voters place their trust in Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove? These men represented the elite, and they were committed to ensuring the continued dominance of capital over human life. Couldn’t people see this? How could so many voters fall for the absurd claims the elite made about the economic benefits of leaving? Didn’t these voters find the Leave campaign’s blatant demonisation of immigrants distasteful? Didn’t they know that the EU generally benefits Britain’s economy, and that a vote to leave the EU was a vote for economic uncertainty and a reduction in living standards for the majority? Continue reading ‘Brexit and working-class politics’

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