STEPHEN YEO argues that cooperative politics can help to address the democratic deficit.
As mainstream politics, including Labour’s, becomes more consumerist and less based on values and principles, the task of bringing cooperation into politics, rather than politics into cooperation, becomes more urgent. There is a growing democratic deficit in Britain, which cooperative and mutual enterprises (CMEs), aided by the Coop Party, are better placed than anyone else to address.
This deficit is dangerous not only for democracy in general, but also for new Labour. We ain’t seen the half of the electorate’s fickleness yet, and it has been fed by those who may founder because of it.
Each of the two main parties has encouraged a contractual relationship with individual voters. Parties – often personified by their leaders – deliver products and services. Individual voters are urged to offer support, conditional upon delivery. Support may be withdrawn as soon as a rival offers more for less. Votes are seen as payment for delivery, no longer flowing from values and principles.
The components of the current democratic deficit include:
- the gaps between the not-very-democratic local tier of government, an undemocratic regional tier (in England), and an archaic parliament.
Local government has lost authority as it has lost its own financial base and voters do not turn out for it in large numbers. Central government calls local government and LEAs ‘strategic’ but then decimates their remit. Regional government would be exciting, but too exciting for ‘the centre’ to make it democratic, and RDAs do not have democratic legitimacy. Parliament remains unmodernised. The potential of information and communications technology to revolutionise citizen control, membership and democracy remains largely unrealised.
- the multiplication of non-governmental organisations, quangos, etc.
Resources are now concentrated into bodies which are at arms length both from government and from citizens. The Learning and Skills Council, for instance, will have £6 billion at its disposal from April 2001, entirely innocent of all elections. The NHS, the largest employer in Europe, is seen as a management problem and a professional mine-field, not a democratic opportunity.
- the bid culture replacing the grants culture is leading to shifting partnerships and consortia which citizens do not understand.
Very few people understand Single Regeneration Budgets, European Social Funds and the like, let alone how Lottery grants are made. The Lottery is a less alienated, and more voluntary form of ‘taxation’ than any other, but no effort has been made to democratise its grants system.
- globalisation and bloc-ism, opening up services like education and health to transnational, private provision.
The combination of world free trade and transnational blocs such as the European Union will inevitably mean that, in the same way that public spending now has an agreed ceiling (about 40 per cent), the proportion of services such as education and health ring-fenced for national, public provision will also be fixed (at about 40 per cent?). The remainder will be opened to even less accountable private competitive tender.
- the cynicism among the governed, and in the executive arm of government, concerning representative democracy. Helena Kennedy QC recently suggested that if sleaze was the last government’s Achilles heel, ‘fixing things’ will be this government’s.
Cooperative and mutual enterprises are well-placed to address this democratic deficit because we represent forms of membership, ownership, democracy and accountability ourselves, in the fibres of our own being, rather than assuming that democracy goes on ‘somewhere else’. The values and principles of CMEs build-in such social goods.
CMEs do not stand for a sense of belonging; they stand for actual belonging. CMEs do not stand for ‘ownership’ in management speak; they stand for actual ownership. CMEs do not stand for democracy as someone else’s professional activity; it is their own. This is why that old expression – bringing cooperation into politics, not politics into cooperation – is such a helpful way of putting the Coop Party’s agenda now. It is a different kind of politics we need, not different people accessing the old politics, using us as a climbing frame on their way up.
New mutualism as a set of ideas and practices has never been more needed. One emphasis for the Cooperative Commission’s report could be that the best way to address alienation from representative democracy is to do what CMEs have always attempted, namely to build democracy and stakeholder accountability directly into all important forms of purchase and provision. A whole programme of political education, with a small ‘p’, then follows.