About ten of us met for a Democracy Café meeting on Saturday 8 August via Zoom. I say ‘about’ because one member had a lot of buffering and did not make the second half and one came for the second half only. We are at least keeping the flag flying.
The proposed topics were all sort of related: the increase in apparent cronyism with contracts going to friends of friends without announcement or tender (wouldn’t be so bad if the projects worked but they don’t even do that); is Black Lives Matter a distraction? and the Tory party’s view of community.
The week had started with the announcement of a proposed wholesale reform of the planning system by ‘honest Bob’ Jenrick the minister concerned. The ideas is to introduce three zones which would allocate land for various types of development and would give developers a fast track to development (it is claimed). Trevor (who lives in Devizes) said he was hoping to meet his local MP, Danny Kruger, to discuss the issue of community led planning. The Conservatives were said to be keen on the idea although the question was, will they resource it? It does not always seem to be recognised that running and managing ‘community’ events costs money. It will be interesting to hear what Kruger says. The government were once keen on the idea of citizens’ juries but dropped them because many of the proposals emerged from Labour run authorities.
It was noted that the government has an almost visceral dislike of local government which has been evident during the pandemic. They are happy to give funds to the likes of Serco rather than support existing LA health teams run down during austerity. Why government is giving out these contracts is being challenged by the Good Law Project. But, it was pointed out, the government had put more into local government recently. Maybe this could herald a change in attitude? We were reminded of the Lansley reforms of the NHS which caused such immense harm and drastically reduced local input.
Covid-19 had seen a rise in volunteering, community involvement and the activity of local groups and charities. Since local government was not functioning as it should, could the use of community groups be a better way to run things in future? Burke’s idea of ‘little platoons’ had been taken over however by the rise in extreme libertarianism.
A problem with local involvement it was pointed out was that people often choose what were termed ‘cuddly’ projects to contibute or give money to. Effort and resources may not go to areas of real need if this process was pushed too far. Encouraging people to think strategically was also difficult it was noted. This could be alleviated with proper guidance such as with a citizens’ jury process.
Linked to this was the issue of ‘infantilising’ of the general public by government ministers. They were aided in this by the echo chamber of social media. It would seem the prime minister and his aids were quite happy to promote this process. Local government was in a pretty poor state and the government should have done more to reverse this: that it hadn’t reflected perhaps its dislike of them and a desire for control.
This part of the debate was around influence, the media and social media. I had been listening to the BBC’s How They Made us Doubt Everything (still available) which discussed how the tobacco and oil companies had systematically developed systems and methods to sow doubt on the science. For example, scientists always refer to the ‘uncertainty’ of their results and this was misused to claim that the science as a whole is uncertain. As we have discussed before, the need for balance in TV and Radio reporting meant climate deniers had equal say, leaving the impression that the science was less certain than it is. These arguments are also set out in the book Merchants of Doubt.
One person said about their son who disbelieved ‘the media’ ie the BBC, newspapers and so on, and preferred to believe what they read on social media. The latter were promoting – or rather allowing the promotion of – anti vaccination for example. Media organisations filter out extremes or wholly unsupported assertions whereas anything can get published on social media which made it attractive to some. It gave them the sense they were getting at the truth which mainstream media was denying them access to. It did give people the opportunity to challenge received opinion.
Paradoxically, it was noted that the government always said it was ‘following the science’ when it made an announcement. But whose science since the alternative Sage group and WHO often said different things? Maybe it was part of its desire to shift blame with the implied assumption that science is always right.
We ended with a brief discussion about the future and whether Salisbury Democracy Alliance should have something to say in the local elections. Not to be a party seeking votes but to promote ideas of better government and decisions by using citizens’ juries for example. The meeting took place after the ‘will it, won’t it’ debate about pedestrianisation in Salisbury. [Indeed, one of our participants, Mark, had a letter printed in the Salisbury Journal on this subject (6 August 2020)]. An announcement made, then backtracked and little sign of serious research or consultation. Snafu* as the Americans would say. It was in the long term interests of democracy that better decisions were made. Thus we ended on a positive note.
*situation normal all fouled up, although sometimes ‘fouled’ is replaced with something stronger