Reshaping our Democratic Debate

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
1 Jan 2007

The temperature of public parliamentary exchanges ebbs and flows according to laws which aren't strictly determinable by even informed observers - though what's currently preoccupying the media is a pretty good guide.

Take Prime Minister's Question Time. Sometimes it can be highly charged. At other moments, frankly rather pedestrian. In recent times there has been an added frisson of excitement explicable by the prospects of a rising Conservative star and a waning New Labour sun.

Everyone knows that the time of Tony Blair's departure is now measured in weeks rather than years. And with the passing of each month the time when David Cameron's charisma will be tested against the heavy mettle of specific policies also approaches.

Meanwhile, Gordon Brown lurks like a slightly podgy tiger waiting to be unleashed – an animal with a peculiar penchant for staccato sentences and econometrics. And the other parties weigh their goods slightly nervously.

If all this sounds like a soap opera, that's because it is. Performance politics is a blending of high drama and low cunning, especially when the lenses are polished and the pens are poised.

We all know that most work done in the two Westminster chambers is a lot more mundane than these "shop window encounters", of course. But its premisses are still shaped by the major confrontations between party protagonists.

It would be naive to think that you can take confrontation out of politics. But in our saner moments we know that if battle becomes the overriding means of engagement, much that is of value in the art of the possible gets buried.

When David Cameron became Tory leader, he talked about refusing "Punch and Judy politics". It's easy to be cynical about pieties on the lips of power mongers, and this one was soon lost as its generator's polemical skills began to bring roars of encouragement from the benches around him.

To view the overwhelmingly adversarial model as inevitable, however, is an unnecessary concession to a myth of rightness moulded by might.

I realised this on a recent visit to the European Parliament (EP) in Brussels. For many, the first words that come to mind when reminded of this institution are "democratic deficit". The gap between governance and governed is a big issue at a regional level, even with attenuated powers.

But despite its travails, the European Parliament has evolved a different style of political encounter which maybe holds promise for future developments in institutions otherwise configured for war.

In shape, it is semi circular - with those holding office, from different political spheres, partly encompassed by an arc of debate. To keep people on their toes (and for other, mundane reasons) the geography also means that the left is on the right, the right is on the left, and smaller parties are seated in ways which make for unlikely bedfellows.

The Greens and other radical voices marginalised by the UK system are important players in the European Parliament. Less comfortably, the neo-fascists are there, too - having to be contended politically, rather than outlawed procedurally.

There is also electronic voting, and there are display screens. These open up interesting possibilities, barely explored yet. Press-button voting, though requiring careful scrutiny, makes it theoretically reasonable for a debate to include "opinion-testing" and polls to gauge shifting thought, rather than just one big outcome-decider.

In other words, it is technologically easier to tailor procedure to the way people more regularly talk and deliberate, rather than forcing everything into one moment of blind polarisation.

Similarly, satellite links could make a much wider conversation feasible. Voices from Africa can be heard when Africa is being discussed. Civic groups can join in. There can be links to national assemblies, or between institutions. The obscure becomes visible.

Of course things have not gone nearly that far yet. And such ideas would no doubt evoke considerable resistance, as did televising parliament in the UK. There would be loss as well as gain.

Nevertheless, this is an opportunity to examine, very practically, what it would mean to re-shape the way parliamentary activity happens. NGO's and civil society groups could play an important role in encouraging such change.

Churches, too, could assist it, were their own structures and processes not so thoroughly trapped in an adversarial model which bears little relation to the subversive community of Jesus. But that, as they say, is another argument.

A version of this column first appeared in Third Way magazine.

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