Sunday, March 22, 2015

10 Things about the State of Our Democracy

It is easy to dismiss democracy as not working when in reality we lack a working democracy. Some components are in place, but there are serious flaws and gaps that urgently need to be addressed. Otherwise, the drift towards plutocracy will continue towards the point of no return. Here are ten points to note about the current state of democracy in the UK:

No.1: The 20%-backed Rule
In the elections held in 2001 and since, the average turnout has been 62%. But once we take into account that 15% are not even registered to vote, we realise that out of all those who are eligible to vote, 15% haven’t registered, 33% don’t use their vote though they are registered, leaving just 52% who actually cast a vote. And on average this 52% is split between 20% whose vote go to the party that forms the government (or the leading partner of a coalition government) and 32% who vote for some other party to run the country. In other words, the politicians who are setting the policies for us all are generally backed by just 20% of all those eligible to vote.

No.2: Two-Thirds Safe Seats
Almost 60% of the 650 seats (that’s 380 of them) are so safe that they are routinely predicted to remain with their incumbent parties, and they do. A further 10% are considered fairly safe as to attract relatively little attention from rival parties, leaving 30% (i.e., 194 seats) as marginals (these have majorities of 10% or less, and would change with a 5% swing against current MP). So for all the people living outside those 30% marginal seats, if they want to replace their sitting MPs, they know they are on a statistical mission impossible. Every vote cast against these incumbents, in every election, would be just another wasted vote.

No.3: Selective Devolution
More powers are to be devolved to Scotland’s 5.3 million residents. But British residents living elsewhere are told that they will have to go on accepting ‘Whitehall knows best’. London and six of the other eight regions in England have a population either similar to or substantially larger than that of Scotland’s. The citizens living in these diverse areas have no more faith that a remote political elite in Westminster will be responsive to their needs and concerns, but they are for now ignored. Would they have to set up an independence movement before their case for devolved powers is taken seriously?

No.4: Pseudo-Localism
All the talk of localism has less to do with reviving local democracy than to undermine it. Whitehall has the power to impose decisions on land use and commercial development, even if these will only serve a few big corporations at the expense of countless local people who have to live with the unenviable consequences. And while local authorities are handed all the cuts to sort out, they are firmly deprived of the powers to raise any tax revenue. Local people can vote for any party so long as the party does not seek to secure more resources to meet local needs.

No.5: Use & Abuse of Referendum
It seems that when people can see relatively clearly the arguments for and against something (e.g., fracking for shale gas), the government would rather push ahead with it than give the public a chance to decide through, say, a referendum. But when it is something so complicated such as whether the legal and economic arrangements, which the UK has put in place with the rest of the European Union, should be put aside through the UK leaving the EU, then we are offered a referendum even though few could vote with much understanding of the issues. Curiously, while the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership) also raises questions about our country’s sovereignty to decide for itself, it will not be put to a referendum.

No.6: Voting Rights of Vested Interests
Elected politicians in a local authority have to declare their interest if they stand to gain or lose personally from a proposal that has been put to a vote. In such a case, they have to withdraw from the debate and not vote on the proposal. By contrast, in Parliament, an MP or a member of the House of Lords can join in the discussion of any bill even if they may gain from it becoming an act, and they can vote on it without any hindrance, as many did when they voted for opening up the NHS by passing more lucrative contracts to private healthcare companies, in which these Parliamentarians owned shares.

No.7: Plutocracy
Corporate money already buys media controls, advertising & PR, lobbying and lawsuits, secret tax deals, and of course policy influence via party donations. The Government has shown how much it welcomes this by ignoring the Electoral Commission’s recommendations and changing the law to allow a 23% increase on what can be spent in campaigning in the runup to the next elections. With the wealthiest corporate backers, the Government’s strategy is to win elections by promising behind closed doors what they will deliver for those with most money.

No.8: Blanket Ban on Prisoners Voting
At the other end of the social hierarchy, the UK is still alone amongst advanced democracies to insist on a blanket ban to prevent all prisoners from voting. There may be good reasons to deny those who have been convicted of some of the most serious crimes from having a say on who should govern the country, but there is no justification for claiming that anyone sentenced to jail should automatically lose the opportunity to vote. The offences which give rise to such sentences may have no bearing on whether the individuals concerned ought to have a democratic say about their country. Some of these offences may even be less objectionable than MPs cheating on their expense claims and defrauding the public, yet the vast majority of MPs voted to reject a bill brought forward to limit the ban on voting to just those prisoners serving over 4 years.

No.9: Prime Minister Question Time
The showcase for our democracy at work is supposed to be Prime Minister Question Time when obsequious members of the PM’s own party put forward ‘questions’ to enable the PM to reply by saying how wonderful everything is. It is also the occasion when the PM and Leader of the Opposition have to score media points against each other by sounding as rude, dismissive, and arrogant as possible. In effect, the centrepiece of the mechanism for holding the Prime Minister to account is a farcical non-event that reminds the country weekly that there is no executive accountability.

No.10: Parties Coming to an End
Back in 1983, almost 4% of the electorate belong to one or another of the main political parties. Now in 2015 that has dropped to well under 1%. Parties no longer inspire confidence of loyalty. To ordinary people, they are invisible except for once in a blue moon they come around to ask for your vote (assuming you live in one of those marginal seats). Even to their dwindling members, they rarely contact them apart from when they are asking for money. Once a compass for voting allegiance, political parties will become increasingly irrelevant unless they radically reform themselves to offer people something more.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Against Power Inequalities: a historical guide

Against Power Inequalities is a global history of the emergence of power inequalities around the world, the progressive struggle to rein in those with excessive power, and the ideas and movements that have sustained the drive for more inclusive communities. It provides an accessible guide to the roots of exploitation and oppression in power imbalance, explains their inter-connections across time and nations, and sets out how some of them have been overcome while other challenges still remain.

It has been a widely recommended book for political education:
• “Tam’s book is an intellectual tour de force … It bears reading and re-reading, because the issues of power and community are so fundamental, and the history so rich and evocative.” - C. Derber, Professor of Sociology, Boston College (USA)
• “… a book that is breathtaking in its panoramic overview of the genealogy of power inequalities and the struggles against them. ... In its forensic, but always optimistic, analysis of how citizens have worked in the past, and continue to work, towards a fairer, more just society, we have an inspirational example of a text that speaks truth to power.” - D. Reay, Professor of Education, University of Cambridge
• “Henry Tam tells the inspiring, global story of democratic struggles against concentrated power and offers guidance for progressives today. It is a broad, bold, and thoughtful manifesto for popular democratic reform.” - P. Levine, Research Director, Jonathan Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, Tufts University (USA)
• “Tam's book is a kaleidoscope of human history in which he tells a compelling story. He understands the nature of power and the negative impacts it can have in almost any conceivable culture.” - R. Spellman, Chief Executive, Workers Educational Association
• “[The] work of a truly independent scholar.” - E. M. H. Hirsch Ballin, Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Tilburg, The Netherlands
• “Henry Tam is a master storyteller.” - E. Mayo, Secretary General, Co-operatives UK
• “The author boldly claims that his book provides a historical guide to the progressive struggle for power redistribution, and draws out the underlying obstacles to the development of more inclusive communities. This is a mightily ambitious claim. ... Having read the new edition of Against Power Inequalities, I now recognise the power of his keyboard, and believe his claim for the book to be justified." - J. Tizard, the Huffington Post (UK)

What are the key issues to reflect on
• What does the historical pattern tell us about how power inequalities are likely to arise?
• Do we discern common roots of oppression in greed for power regardless of differences in culture-specific beliefs and customs?
• What are the key factors behind successful attempts to counter domination by the powerful?
• Why must the struggle against power inequalities be sustained if exploitative relationships are not to re-emerge?
• What democratic activism can actually achieve despite the odds?

How to get hold of this publication
The new expanded edition, published in 2015 to commemorate the 8th centenary of Magna Carta, is available in e-book and paperback format.
Click on Against Power Inequalities for details.

Options for further engagement
• Contact the author with your questions
• Share Against Power Inequalities with others through a political forum or a reading group
• Set up a discussion group to explore the key themes and ideas directly with the author
• Use the book as the basis for an exercise in retracing the key moments in the historical struggle against those with excessive power, and identifying the lessons for contemporary attempts to reverse the growth of power inequalities.

Supplementary Texts
In addition to Against Power Inequalities, the following books are useful to broaden our historical understanding of the struggle to curb the powerful and promote democratic inclusion for all:
• Gay, P. Enlightenment: An Interpretation (Vols 1 & 2), Gay (Wildwood House: 1973)
• Kloppenberg, J. T., Uncertain Victory: social democracy and progressivism in European and American thought 1870-1920, by (Oxford University Press: 1986)
• Lux, M. The Progressive Revolution: How the Best in America came to be, (John Wiley & Sons: 2009)
• McMahon D. M., Enemies of the Enlightenment: the French Counter-Enlightenment and the Making of Modernity, (Oxford University Press: 2001)
• Nicholas T., The Five Giants: a biography of the welfare state, (Fontana Press: 1996)
• Nord, P., The Republican Moment: struggles for democracy in nineteenth century France, (Harvard University Press: 1995)
• Rodgers, D. T., Atlantic Crossings: social politics in a progressive age, (Harvard University Press: 1998)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Cooperation Unbound: a reciprocal model for democratic education

The problem with undemocratic institutions – be they the government of a country or a business – is that they do the bidding of those in charge at the top, without being accountable to others who have to live with the consequences of their actions.

One of the most notable features of the democratic struggle during the 19th/early 20th centuries was the drive to enable the disempowered majority to learn why and how they go about getting a greater say about the decisions that affected them. Reformists who wanted democratic cooperation to replace authoritarian controls recognised their cause could only be effectively advanced if education played its part.

And in quick succession, learning providers such as the Working Men’s College (founded 1854), Cooperative Women’s Guild (1883), Ruskin College (1899), Workers’ Educational Association (1903), Cooperative College (1919), National Council of Labour Colleges (1921), were set up. But ironically, the achievement of universal suffrage for all adults aged 18+, the establishment of the welfare state, and the emergence of the (short-lived) post-war consensus on social justice, had by the 1970s led many to believe that the struggle for democracy and cooperation was over.

Support for politically orientated education began to slip down the agenda, and at every subsequent economic downturn, funding from state and philanthropic sources would be further cut, and lifelong learning in general became more tightly squeezed into employment-focused training to meet the needs of a largely non-cooperative economy.

In order to rebuild the momentum to democratise state and business institutions so that cooperation is structurally and culturally embedded in how they operate, four steps should be taken to develop a new business model with reciprocity at its heart.

First, lifelong learning providers should explore with representatives (from social, cooperative, and community enterprises; trades unions; worker-owned/worker-run partnerships; and other progressive institutions) what type of education will best encourage and enable more people to contribute to the success of those organisations, both in terms of how to apply the principles of democratic cooperation internally, and how to promote suitable economic and political changes externally.

Secondly, they need to put in place partnership arrangements to deal with course development, financial commitment, and impact review. These should be at a level that would be neither too large to render communications superficial nor too small to hinder economies of scale. This points to a federated structure with Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, London, East of England, and other English regions (or sub-regional City-Regions such as Greater Manchester or Greater Birmingham) as likely units of strategic cooperation to steer and monitor progress. Within their own areas, they can set their respective priorities, but they will also have the option of sharing course contents and other provisions across the UK where appropriate.

Thirdly, the partners can agree their organisational backing and funding support on the basis of how they will benefit in directly quantifiable economic terms and as measured by SROI (social return on investment), from a range of courses and programmes co-designed to raise awareness and understanding of:

• Why institutions work better to the extent they are more democratically run.
• How to correct superficial or flawed approaches to facilitate democratic cooperation so that real improvement can be made.
• What kind of incremental changes can be brought forward to modify non-democratic institutions in the short-term.
• How to transform existing institutions or set up new ones so that they are legally, financially, democratically robust enough to foster high performance and stakeholders’ satisfaction.
• What the common problems are in running and developing institutions committed to democratic cooperation, and how they can be addressed to bring about greater benefits for all.
• What lessons can be learnt from experience around the world in advancing democratic cooperation in different sectors or institutional contexts.

Finally, when partnership structures, course contents/delivery, and funding agreement are in place, further investment support can be sought from relevant government agencies, social investors, CDFIs (community development finance institutions), and progressive foundations to help with the continuous improvement of the learning opportunities and the expansion of their access. Instead of short-term wheel-reinventing projects, the partners will be in a position to make a strong case for sustained investment in the provision of effective courses that will enhance the resilience, performance and growth of democratic institutions in all sectors.

Back in 1879, Professor James Stuart of the University of Cambridge, a leading proponent of adult education, remarked that the cooperative movement “is a democratic movement if there ever was one. It therefore cannot repose on the good sense of a few; its success will depend on the good sense of the masses.” And while the connections between education and democratic cooperation have in recent decades been weakened in Britain, the value of ensuring these two elements are properly integrated can be seen in areas where cooperative working has as a result been highly successful in securing stability, prosperity and social justice – e.g., Mondragon in Spain, and Emilia Romagna in Italy. In both these regions, a vast range of cooperative organisations joined forces through federated structures to ensure, amongst other things, education is provided to sustain the long-term health of democratic cooperation as a way of intra and inter institutional life.

It is time we accept that we cannot rely on goodwill funding or grants dispensed to those on the receiving end of a supplicant relationship. We must integrate the objectives of social justice, economic vibrancy, and political inclusion into a reciprocal partnership, and use that as the foundation to revitalise democratic education.