A new form of democracy?

Nice building, but what are they actually DOING in there?!
(photo by Michael D Beckwith)

We live in a democracy where our leaders follow the people. Some might say that’s its greatest strength but, in this time of environmental crisis, it could turn out to be its greatest failing.

This is an emergency and for emergency situations we need emergency action.

Ban Ki-Moon, former UN Secretary General

The UK Parliament’s decision to at least declare a climate emergency is a good start. But to act on it, the scientists tell us we need radical mobilisation across the planet, on a scale comparable to that of a world war. And it’s a level of mobilisation we’ll need either way, whether we decide to combat climate change now, or leave ourselves to deal with its effects later.

Whether today’s Churchill proves to be a sixteen year-old Swede or a former US Vice-President, we need genuine leadership capable of driving through the dramatic changes required. And – let’s face it – just as in wartime, some of those necessary changes could be, at least in the initial stages, extremely tough to stomach.

But until we all voluntarily pull together to make those sacrifices, our current electoral democracy just doesn’t allow for the level of leadership or authority the emergency demands.

Here’s why:

  • Even the best-intentioned politician is forced to pander to votes, because without them they can’t enact the policies that will make those good intentions a reality. The result is a system overly timid in the face of voter disapproval that encourages short-term goals while stifling long-term planning.
  • MPs are too often pressurised by their party line into over-ruling what they personally believe is right.
  • The use of opinion polls to steer policy risks capturing uninformed, relatively off-hand judgements.
  • At every step, corporate lobbies and commercial media are using their deep, deep pockets to influence policy in their favour.
  • And that’s all assuming our politicians are actually well-intentioned, not just self-serving or driven by ego.

A constant need for validation restricts anyone’s ability to get on with the task at hand. Which is why a more authoritarian system like China’s has been able to push through almost miraculous economic reform in the space of just a few decades – albeit at huge environmental cost.

But no one’s seriously suggesting we dump democracy outright – just that we find it in a different form. The answer according to many, including Extinction Rebellion who made it one of their three demands, is a Citizens’ Assembly.

A citizens’ assembly brings people together to learn, deliberate and make recommendations in relation to a particular issue. Impartially selected at random, citizens’ assembly participants will be selected to reflect the demographic composition of the UK.

Extinction Rebellion

Although Citizens’ Assemblies have operated successfully around the world, there are inherent problems. But if it’s reckoned that no system is without its flaws, those of a CA seem relatively manageable, or at least acceptable. By contrast, the flaws in our current electoral democracy have dragged it to a standstill, proving it ineffective in addressing the relatively short-term issue of Brexit, let alone in rousing the level of engagement that the long-term environmental emergency demands.

Whether a Citizens’ Assembly on climate change will ever be realised, until someone is able to structure an informed and visibly impartial response to the climate challenge that we can all rally behind, the onus is on us, not our politicians. If they won’t – or simply can’t – enforce the necessary change, we’ve no option but to bring it about ourselves, in our homes and in our businesses. We need to live that change personally, and demand it on a local and a global level. Because if we don’t, our leaders won’t follow.

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