Posts Tagged 'democracy'

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.

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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.

Why the left loses: Explaining the decline of centre-left parties

Are centre-left parties across Europe facing a future of decline? Drawing on a new book, Rob Manwaring and Paul Kennedy argue that an essential element in any robust democracy is an effective centre-left. However, centre-left parties now face a number of major challenges, from the rise of new parties to the erosion of their traditional support bases, and only by addressing these challenges can their decline be halted.

Originally published by the LSE EUROPP blog on November 8th 2017. 

Rob Manwaring

Paul Kennedy

Is the centre-left in terminal decline? At present, the electoral fortunes of the main social democratic and labour parties are not healthy – following Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016, a suite of elections has tended to see the main centre-left party lose out.

In Britain, despite the back-fire of Teresa May’s snap election, The Labour Party has now lost three straight elections, last winning in 2005. Elsewhere, 2017 was a mostly bleak year for the centre-left, with record defeats for the PvDA in the Netherlands, and a near destruction of the French PS under Benoît Hamon in the French elections. Yet again, Angela Merkel has bested the SPD in Germany, and the left also lost in Norway, despite a close race. It also remains out of office in Australia, Spain and Finland.

In other places, the centre-left might be in office, but either in minority government or in a fragile electoral setting (Denmark, Portugal, Italy). Of course, the trend is not uniform, and the recent election in New Zealand does demonstrate that the centre-left can win from seemingly difficult circumstances. Yet, since the highpoint of the late 1990s (at one point 15 of the then 17 EU member states were headed by the centre-left), the electoral returns have been poor, often with new populist challengers on the scene.

As co-editors of a new book, Why the left loses, with our colleagues we wanted to uncover what was behind the apparent decline in the left, and also add to the wider literature. Although the snapshot which we provide hardly paints a picture of a social democracy in rude health, we are united in our belief that an essential element in any robust democracy is an effective centre-left. As Sheri Berman states in her contribution, “The decline of the centre-left has hurt Western democracy”.

Yet, social democracy has no divine right to exist; on the contrary, centre-left parties must be tireless in their efforts to convince electorates that they remain relevant to their day-to-day concerns, and it is little consolation that electorates don’t appear to care much for other political families either.

As the late Peter Mair chillingly observed in the opening lines of his posthumous Ruling the Void, “The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.”

What’s driving this downward trajectory? Institutionally, many of the centre-left parties face a fragmenting party system with new and emergent challengers, (UKIP, Podemos, the Swedish Democrats, the AfD in Germany, etc). The centre-left then becomes squeezed from both left and right. Changing electoral sociology means that the major parties suffer from class and party de-alignment. In many cases, the changing economic structures have eroded traditional centre-left support, and the parties have been unable to build enough support from other groups.

And what of agency and leadership? In many cases, some of the recent crop of centre-left leaders have not been up to the task. Moreover, much of the longstanding literature on social democracy tends to downplay the role of leadership, but in a more personalised, social-media driven environment, effective leadership is harder to deliver.

Ideationally, we tend to find that the centre-left has not really moved on from the ‘third way’ formula of the 1990s and 2000s. Commonly associated with Anthony Giddens, the third way was an attempt to renew social democracy, but also critique ‘old’ social democracy and neo-liberalism. Since the third way heyday, the centre-left has struggled to find a new ideational formula. In the UK, Ed Miliband played with ideas of ‘predistribution’, ‘Blue Labour’, ‘One Nation’ and so on. This ideational restlessness perhaps reflects the ongoing struggle for the centre-left to re-state its purpose in the 21st Century.

Until these wider issues are grappled with, the risk is that the centre-left will keep on losing.

About the authors:

Rob ManwaringFlinders University
Rob Manwaring is a senior lecturer at Flinders University, in South Australia. He researches into the areas of labour and social democratic politics, comparative politics, political parties, and democracy.

Paul KennedyUniversity Bath
Paul Kennedy is Lecturer in Spanish and European Studies at the University of Bath.


Why the left loses edited by Rob Manwaring and Paul Kennedy is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for just £19.99.

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

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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 new kind of democracy: anti-politics and the funnelling of frustration

matt flinders

Matt Flinders

By Matt Flinders, Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics, University of Sheffield

This post was originally published on The Conversation on 12 June 2017.

“It’s not easy being a professor of politics. Everyone expects me to know what’s going on and what’s going to happen. But I’m just as bamboozled as everyone else by the outcome of the UK’s recent general election.

“Bamboozlement” has become something of a byword for modern democratic events. Think Brexit, think Donald Trump, and now think “Corbyn the conqueror” – the unlikely cult hero leading an “old” political party re-designated as a grassroots social movement.

“…the unlikely cult hero leading an “old” political party re-designated as a grassroots social movement.”

To some extent, recent events in the UK are symptomatic of a broader international trend that is often (but incorrectly) labelled as anti-political sentiment. But high levels of social frustration and political disengagement among large sections of the public actually veils a desire for a different kind of politics – not the denial or rejection of democratic politics itself.

It is this that explains the growth of populist nationalism (on both the right and left) in Europe and the United States. It also helps explain what happened on June 8 2017.

The success of Jeremy Corbyn and his “New-Old” Labour party was that it tapped into and funnelled the large reservoir of social frustration with politics. Corbyn offered a very different type of politics, both in terms of content (a clear shift to the left of higher taxes and nationalisation) and form (against the clean-cut image of “professional politicians”). Corbyn’s rather chaotic and almost amateurish approach came across as refreshingly honest. Never before have a scruffy beard and an untucked shirt become such electoral assets.

If you are anti-political (against how politics generally works), if you are anti-politician (against politicians who all look and behave the same), and if you are anti-establishment (in terms of believing in the existence of a largely untouchable political elite), then the Labour party under Corbyn positioned itself like a political lightning-rod to channel those frustrations.

This is the key point that many of his opponents failed to understand. The more the media attacked and mocked him, the more Theresa May refused to engage, the more Boris Johnson described the Labour leader as a “benign herbivore” and a “mutton-headed mugwump” the more this seemed to energise and build Corbyn’s support base. It simply confirmed in the minds of the disaffected just how brash and arrogant the political elite had become.

Funnelling frustration and offering a positive message formed the magic formula for the Labour Party’s glorious defeat. It tuned into the populist signal.

The critical element, however, which offers a key to understanding contemporary democracy, was the manner in which the Labour party secured the support of at least three very different segments of the previously disillusioned or disengaged.

The first segment was the traditionally anti-political youth (aged 18-24) who were dismissed as “snowflake voters” who would melt away before getting to the polling booth. The pollsters were wrong. (Again.). Around 72% of younger voters ended up placing their crosses on the ballot paper (up from just 44% in 2015).

Many young people are still angry about the EU referendum vote and joined a second section of the public who were, put simply, anti-hard Brexit. This included remainers and soft-Brexiteers, but the common denominator was deep-seated concern about the increasingly belligerent, nationalist and aggressive tone of the Conservative Party.

This in turn leads to the third and final group – the white working classes, the “left behind”, who rejected mainstream politics and led “the revolt on the right” seen in the popularity of UKIP in 2015. The simple fact seems to be that a large proportion of the “left behind” went back to the left. They chose to support an anti-austerity agenda and investment in public services above the anti-immigrant anti-Europe stance offered by the Conservatives.

The times they are a-changin’

It seems then, in this bamboozling aftermath of June 8, that the public is not anti-political. They are “pro-political” but also “pro-a-different-way-of-doing-politics”. They crave the existence of real policy choices and a positive vision for the future.

As I argue in my new book, What Kind of Democracy is This?, the concept of democracy is in flux, and arguably more fragile than at any point in the last 50 years. Politicians need to be popular, but this is different to falling into the trap of populism (the very opposite of democratic politics). Populists tend to offer simple solutions to complex problems, generally by blaming “the problem” on a specific section of society (immigrants, foreigners, gypsies …), and then arguing that if we “the people” could only get rid of the cumbersome safeguards of democracy, life would be so much easier.

“Politicians need to be popular, but this is different to falling into the trap of populism.”

“Let the people govern” is a phrase often used to veil the imposition of centralised and unaccountable structures. Democracy has to have limits, but populists tend to deny this basic fact.

For many, Brexit, President Trump, and Corbyn’s 40% vote share have come as a series of political surprises. The rules of the political game have changed but nobody seems to know quite what they are anymore.

We need a new language of politics in order to fully grasp what kind of democracy this is. The language of left or right, for or against, in or out is the language of simple binaries or zero sum games. It no longer reflects a changing world of multiple and overlapping loyalties and identities. Most of all we need a language of politics that rejects the dominant politics of pessimism and offers in its place a bold new vision of collective action and self belief – a new politics of optimism to underpin a new kind of democracy.


What kind of democracy is this [FC]You can pre-order What kind of democracy is this? by Matt Flinders here for just £15.99.

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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.

Featured image: ‘Jeremy Corbyn campaign in West Kirby‘ by Andy Mlah is licensed under CC BY 2.0

22 reasons to vote #imvotingbecause #GE2015 #whyvote

With hours to go until Polling Stations close and constituency level polling indicating that this is going to be a close run thing in many areas across the country, your vote can really make a difference. So if you haven’t voted yet here are 22 reasons why you might want to go and make your mark NOW!

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blogpost 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 response to the European and UK local elections by Alison Shaw, Director of Policy Press


When I set up Policy Press it was because I was passionate about social issues.  I felt strongly that we needed to fight for a fairer society, one that looked after all its citizens regardless of their wealth and background; race, ethnicity or faith; gender, age or (dis)abilities; regardless of whether they lived in England or Ethiopia.

Our authors are the experts on how to achieve that goal, from understanding the challenges at a theoretical level through to how to implement policy and practice on the ground, and until today, I have been delighted to let them do the talking.  But following the recent results in the UK local and European elections I am moved to join the conversation and speak out.

This weekend we have seen again the rise of the extreme right in politics, both in the UK and across Europe.  This move appears to be a response to a range of factors – a belief that the European Union is inefficient and has too much control over nation state policies; a fear that immigration is a threat to jobs, security and culture; and an understandable anxiety for many as the global recession continues to take its toll.

It may be that the European Union as an institution is in need of reform, but we have to remember why we have a Union.  Initially a post-World War II settlement, it was a means for ensuring cooperation to avoid future conflict.  More recently it has been more about power and global influence in response to the rise of the emerging economies of China, India and Brazil – but the initial  collaborative intent must not be forgotten.

My fear is that, if we remain silent, then things we take for granted like the belief in equality and fairness will be lost and things we don’t think possible, will happen.  Our authors’ thoughtful writing has helped me to contemplate many of these issues and the three books below stand out for me.

ImageThe UK Government’s response to the global recession was an ‘Austerity’ drive, cutting back spending dramatically, especially to the welfare budget. This has hit those already in challenging circumstances in a devastating way.  Mary O’Hara, a journalist and Fulbright Scholar spent a year travelling the UK interviewing those facing hardship and those supporting them.  Her eloquent, insightful book Austerity Bites, published today, provides first hand testimony of what it is like to be struggling –  not to have enough to feed your family despite working your hardest in low paid, insecure jobs.

When we feel our security is challenged, one response is to fight back.  When we feel threatened we can look around for those that are different to blame.  Perhaps this points to why we are facing an increasing tide of anti-immigration rhetoric.  The headlines in some of the UK tabloid papers have been shocking: “We must stop the migrant invasion” Daily Express, “4,000 foreign murderers and rapists we can’t throw out” Daily Mail or “How Romanian criminals terrorise our streets” Daily Express.



Malcolm Dean, previously Social Affairs Editor for the Guardian, looked at how the media influences and manipulates public opinion and the effect this has on politics and policy in his highly praised book Democracy under Attack.  It provides perhaps one possible answer to how and why we have seen the French National Front, the Dutch Freedom Party and the UK Independence Party (UKiP) gaining such traction in the recent elections.

Image Dimitris Ballas, of Sheffield University and Danny Dorling and Ben Hennig of Oxford University have created the first European Social Atlas and it  analyses social and political Europe in detail.  This beautifully produced book shows in clear graphic form that Europe is a blend of cultures, languages, traditions, landscapes and ideologies that are often not bound by state or regional borders.  The social atlas of Europe is “an insightful look at today’s Europe” (Robert Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley) and will be published on 25 June. It shows Europe and the Europeans in an entirely new light and highlights why we should be, working together, not pulling apart.

The recurrent struggle for real democracy

Policy & Politics coverby Gary Bridge, Alex Marsh and David Sweeting, University of Bristol

The right to the city: the struggle for democracy in the urban public realm by Mark Purcell is available to download free during September.

In a lucid and compelling contribution to Policy & Politics, Mark Purcell confronts the progressive liberal line of those who warn of the dangers of austerity and urge the (re)instatement of a welfare state. He argues that while a conventional liberal-democratic state may be more desirable than a neo-liberal state, they both fall far short of what we can and ought to imagine democratic society to be. Drawing on the work of French intellectual Lefebvre, Purcell outlines for citizens a state of ‘autogestion’ – a process and struggle where citizens both individually and collectively take control. They take control not to cede power to oligarchical state institutions or powerful state actors, but instead to co-ordinate in leaderless, non-hierarchical groups analogous to rhizomes – ‘centreless assemblages in which any point or individual can connect to any other’.

As Purcell points out, this idea is not some abstract utopian notion of human organisation, but instead a recurrent feature of co-ordinated and democratic behaviour occurring spontaneously around the world in 2011, in sites such as Tahir Square in Cairo, Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Syntagma Square in Athens, and Zuccotti Park in New York. Rather than ‘lamenting these revelations as a failure’, we should, according to Purcell, ‘narrate the exhilaration that participant after participant reported having felt as they refused to be ruled and took on the challenge of ruling themselves… it is that joy and delight in discovering democracy and urban society that we must help to grow and spread’.

Purcell focuses on the urban public realm to develop his analysis, and his article is available free of charge in September. His is one of five contributions to the current themed issue of Policy & Politics (Volume 41, number 3, July 2013,) on ‘reconfiguring the local public realm’. This collection of papers aims to advance our understanding of local and urban governance and democracy through theoretical and empirical exploration of matters such as social movements, political participation, and institutional formation. Contributions are international, taking in global North and South, and are located both in theoretical literature and empirical analysis. Alongside Purcell’s contribution is a detailed empirical analysis of urban activism in Madrid by Andres Walliser; an examination of the potential of participatory forms of governance such as those found in Brazil to proliferate in the global south by Jeremy Seekings; a consideration of the relationships between state and civil society in Norway by Jacob Aars and Dag Arne Christensen; and, in a contribution that very much contrasts with Purcell’s, a consideration of the need on democratic grounds for powerful local government by Colin Copus, Melvin Wingfield, and David Sweeting.

Download Mark Purcell’s article here (free during September). Find out more about Policy & Politics at

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