Is There a Crisis of Confidence in Representative Democracy?

By Julia Mason

Participatory democracy is the new trend. With the European parliament elections on the horizon, do citizens still have faith in representative democracy?

The Rise of Participatory Democracy

At a recent European Parliament event to celebrate the International Day of Democracy (18 September), statements proclaiming the merits of participatory democracy abounded. This might seem strange in the meeting rooms of one of the world’s biggest houses of political representatives, but participatory democracy is making waves in Brussels and beyond.
Citizens’ assemblies, participatory budgeting, public consultations…These are the buzz words that are bringing legitimacy to contemporary democracies. On the model of the Irish Citizens’ Assembly, propelled to fame thanks to its role in bringing about the Article 8 referendum on abortion rights, citizens’ assemblies have begun to pop up across the continent.[1] The number of municipalities setting up participatory budgeting is on the rise,[2] with some cities, such as Paris, handing over as much as 5% of their resources to publically-decided projects.[3] And of course, high-profile citizen consultation processes have started across the EU, largely inspired by Emmanuel Macron’s consultations citoyennes.
In his recent article, Stephen Boucher even goes as far as to propose that, post-Brexit, the remaining forty-six British seats in the European Parliament be reassigned to “a contingent of ordinary citizens from around the EU to examine legislation from the long-term perspective.”[4] But isn’t this precisely the role of an MEP? What happened to the concept of electing a trusted figure to represent your views in parliament on your behalf?

The Fall of Representative Democracy

Representative democracy has been around since the Roman Republic and has strived over the centuries to bring voices from different localities together in national and regional parliaments. But such a system where a concentration of power is held in the hands of a small and technocratic elite is becoming less and less acceptable. In the European Parliament, the number of MEPs who have been there for decades is high; more than 103 parliamentarians have been there for more than three terms.[5] The “grandfather” of the house, Elmar Brock, was elected back in 1980.[6] I’ll bet most people reading this article weren’t even born then.
This lack of credibility translates into a crisis of confidence in traditional democratic structures, exemplified by low voter turnout at elections and a fall in the number of young people joining political parties. The figures below show the drop in turnout in the European Parliament elections over the last two decades (EU average). [7]

Democracy Graph

Similarly, a recent LSE study showed that membership of political parties across Europe has sunk in recent years. The research found that “on average, the absolute number of members has almost halved since 1980.” [8] Whilst there might be several explanations for this decrease, it is clear that the traditional party political system is not proving to be as engaging as it was in the past. With confidence in traditional political parties falling, can participatory democracy provide the solution?

The Flaws of Participatory Democracy

Some of the ideas emerging to promote participatory democracy are truly brilliant. The general public has a hugely important role to play in shaping debates and policies, as do NGOs, associations and businesses. However, there are several serious shortcomings that limit the feasibility and credibility of such instruments.
Firstly, it cannot be denied that participation exercises are often used as a communication ploy for political publicity. How can we ensure that the outcomes of such consultations or assemblies will actually make their way into the policymaking procedure? Whilst politicians might show support for the ideas floated during such events, what is to say that these proposals receive more than just lip service within the formal party structures?
Secondly, how do we attract “ordinary” citizens? Participatory activities are ostensibly open to all, but largely end up attracting the same, already politicised crowd, who are university educated and able to travel to Brussels or their national capitals. This is particularly true in the case of the highly-mediatised citizen’s consultations being carried out by the EU, which have become a kind of echo chamber for pro-EU groups to push their own agenda.
Thirdly, with the possible exception of participatory budgeting, most forms of participatory democracy do not provide a framework for sustained engagement. In initiatives which take random samples of the population, the average person will only be consulted on an ad hoc basis once every few years, with little political interaction in between times. If the main critique of representative democracy is that it only rallies citizens once every four or five years, then current forms of participatory democracy do not seem to fare much better. More systematic forms of citizen input, like the European Citizens Initiative, have seen very limited success and have received far more critique than praise.[9]

A matter of reform, not revolution

Churchill famously said “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” The system of elected representatives, in my view, is not fundamentally flawed, but does need some serious reform. The number of terms that an MEP can serve could be limited to two or three, for instance. If we understand the role of an MEP as a community figure sent to parliament to represent the views of their local constituency, we need to be sending “normal” professionals to Brussels, not career politicians and scores of law graduates.
Functioning DemocracyCitizens (and especially young people) need to be encouraged to join traditional political parties again. The kind of regular and sustained political engagement sought by advocates of participatory democracy can be achieved by being a member of a party and contributing to internal debates, meetings and votes. If politicians go against the opinion expressed by the majority of their members, they lose credibility and potentially votes among their members, making them far more accountable to party members than to ordinary citizens.
Being involved with politics on the inside is also a great tool for changing its course. In his book How to Stop Brexit, Nick Clegg’s main advice is to join the Labour Party and steer the political direction towards maintaining the UK’s membership in the EU from the inside. [10] If party membership isn’t a great way to add citizens’ voices to politics in a meaningful, inclusive and sustainable manner, then I don’t know what is. And if all else fails, at least representative democracy offers us the option of running for political office ourselves…


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/08/how-99-strangers-in-a-dublin-hotel-broke-irelands-abortion-deadlock accessed 2 October 2018
[2] https://www.participatorybudgeting.org/pb-map/
[3] https://budgetparticipatif.paris.fr/bp/la-demarche-sommaire.html accessed 02 October 2018
[4] https://carnegieeurope.eu/2018/05/02/how-citizens-can-hack-eu-democracy-pub-76168
[5] i.e. 13.7% of the parliament of 751 MEPs.
[6] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/meps/en/1263/ELMAR_BROK_home.html
[7] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/elections2014-results/en/turnout.html
[8] http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2013/05/06/decline-in-party-membership-europe-ingrid-van-biezen/
[9] E.g. https://www.thenewfederalist.eu/a-european-citizens-initiative-2-0-to-tackle-the-democratic-deficit
[10] http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsereviewofbooks/2017/11/27/book-review-how-to-stop-brexit-and-make-britain-great-again-by-nick-clegg/


Featured picture: Smells like democracy, Garrett Coakley.

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