- John Parkinson is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of York, specialising in democratic theory and comparative democratic institutions. In a previous life he was a facilitator, internal communications and public relations consultant. The opinions expressed are his own. -
Last weekend 200 randomly-selected citizens got together in London for a “deliberative poll” to sort through ideas for transforming British democracy. Judging by the organizers’ blog – at www.power2010.org.uk – the participants were blown away by the experience, as ordinary people always are when they take part in serious discussion on big political questions. It’s brilliant stuff to be part of, and there should be more like it, I think.
However, there is more – much more – to “deliberative democracy” than deliberative polling.
What is deliberative democracy? There are several versions, but what all the versions share is the idea that democracy should be based not just on votes but public debate as well; not the power of big business, big interest groups and political parties, but the power of the “better argument”. Good arguments come from being inclusive: you need all sorts of people involved otherwise you only take account of a small range of perspectives, interests and experiences. And being inclusive like this makes for better citizens: the more we practice self-government, the better we get at it, and the less persuasive are patronising claims about the ignorance of ordinary people.
As a political theory, deliberative democracy has been around for a while now. It’s 30 years since a young American academic called Joseph Bessette coined the term, but he was talking about the deliberation that went on among elected representatives in the U.S. Congress.