Virtual Democracy Café

On Saturday 27 June 2020, a small group of us had a go at a virtual democracy café courtesy of Skype. Not altogether successful because of technical issues and the occasional drop out. Nevertheless, we did manage a discussion of various topics and it was good to meet up during this time of forced isolation.

The conversation started with the future of Salisbury and in particular the ill-fated library scheme. It was always a scheme which looked particularly precarious before the current Covid-19 problems with retail. The idea of shifting the library away from its current central position was not widely popular. Converting the tunnel into an arcade of shops also seemed a dubious proposition. The decline in retail activity during the forced lockdown was probably the final kiss of death for the scheme although the Salisbury Journal reported that it had been paused. In the last few days, Wiltshire Council is one of the authorities which are effectively bankrupt if they were a commercial concern. It was questioned whether the planning application had been withdrawn.

We spent a little time discussing the TV programme on the Salisbury poisonings which were mostly thought to be a good piece of drama. One of the scenes showed an angry meeting of residents and the person who was at the meeting said this was not how it was. There were angry questions but this was not the general tone of the meeting. Well, that’s drama I suppose.

We got onto discussing the future of Salisbury and it was suggested that it was an opportunity to rethink the city and how it will be in the future. Climate was one consideration and would the City take the opportunity to make it more green and do things like pedestrianisation and making it more people friendly?

Against this was the increasing use of cars with people less inclined to use public transport. People have also got used to on-line shopping in a big way and some may not wish to go back to physically visiting the city. More were working from home and this trend was going to increase as will more automation of work.

The effects of pandemics in history on politics was discussed. It sometimes had the effect of forcing political change: shortage of manpower after the plagues for example improved wages for the poorest if only because there were fewer of them. But, it was noted, inequality increased post the 2008 crash so disasters did not always result in improvements. It was noted that the [Overton?] window had moved a little in terms of things like government expenditure. The government had borrowed heavily during the crisis, a policy inconceivable in the recent past. The current government was committed to ‘balancing the books’ and it was likely that the ‘book balancers’ would emerge at some time in the not too distant future, indeed, George Osborne was busy opining to this effect on BBC’s Start the Week recently.

We hope to repeat this next month on 11 July but which medium we will use is currently being looked at. Those on the email list will receive an invitation to join so we hope to see some more people then if you care to join in.

Peter Curbishley

Democracy Café, February 2020

The February 2020 Democracy Cafe saw discussion of two topics:

1. Can we trust things that come out of China?

The latest thing to come out of China is of course the coronavirus and it was this that was discussed first. Given levels of secrecy in China, are we getting the full picture of the seriousness of the situation? Reports seem to suggest that the Government is being more open about the spread of the virus and is taking serious measures to try to contain it.  It was suggested that this was perhaps due to concerns from the Chinese Government that if they don’t deal with the situation it may present a threat to their authority.  This is the view of Richard McGregor writing in the Observer this week. The coronavirus, along with the protests in Hong Kong, may be seen as undermining the authority of the ruling party.

There was discussion of trust in relation to Chinese trade and their economic strategy.  It was suggested that historically the Chinese have expanded their political influence through trade, rather than through military endeavours.  Are we seeing this today in Africa and South America, where Chinese economic expansion is extensive? Does the way that the economic expansion is carried out amount to exploitation, or are there mutual benefits for the countries concerned?  It was generally agreed that the goods that China is exporting are now more trustworthy than they used to be because they are higher quality.  They used to be known as ‘junk’ and tat but know we routinely buy high tech goods from China.  It was suggested that the Chinese economic strategy of government intervention to improve living standards and reduce absolute poverty has been successful in building the trust of Chinese people in their Government but the slowing of economic growth may represent a threat to the consent that they have been given.

It was suggested that whilst discussing this topic we might need to be mindful of how our perceptions of China are shaped by our own media and by opinions coming out of the USA.  Trump’s trade war with China has generated a rhetoric of mistrust, as has the discussion over Huawei.  It was pointed out that trust in governments and the operation of states is an issue in other countries as well, including our own and the US.  Examples were given of how authorities in the UK and the US routinely track transatlantic messages.  It was suggested that “information is the new oil” in terms of its’ value.  The Chinese authorities recognise this value and exert control over social media.

Trust is an issue for China over its’ treatment of minorities and reference was made to the Uighur people and the appalling way that they are being treated.  Perhaps there is a need to take the Chinese authorities to the International Court over this issue, but which country would be bold enough to do so?  Is it a case that the Chinese regard this as their century and are willing to override the wishes of others in order to become the dominant world power?  This lead to a more general discussion about when do we reach a point that the actions of the state are so bad that we stop trading with them bearing in mind that multinational corporations are so influential.

One thing is for sure, China’s behaviour will continue to be a major talking point in the coming decades.

2. Is positive discrimination a help or a hindrance?

The assertion was made that if someone is appointed to a post due to positive discrimination and they perform badly this reflects negatively on the process of positive discrimination.  Some comments were made suggesting that the best person for the job should be hired and reference to various strategies, such as the anonymising of applications, was made as a way of reducing negative discrimination in the recruitment process.  It was pointed out that appointing the best person for the job often meant appointing someone who fitted in with the predominant culture in the work place and not “rocking the boat” which would preserve the dominance of white middle class male culture.  It was suggested that there will often be more than one candidate who seems suitable and in those circumstances it may be sensible to positively discriminate in favour of a member of a minority group.

The discussion moved on to the importance of creating a more level playing field through a more equitable education system and by raising the aspirations of members of minority groups so that they are more likely to apply for high powered jobs.  Reference was made to the predominance of private school alumni in positions of power.

It was mentioned that there are an increasing number of women heads of state around the world, examples being Finland and New Zealand and Angela Merkel in Germany.  It was noted however, that even when a woman is the head of state they do not necessarily advance the cause of women, as with Margaret Thatcher who did not appoint a single woman to her Cabinet.   

Our next session is on Saturday 14th March at 10am at Salisbury Playhouse. This will not be the same as our usual Democracy Cafe. Instead it will be a TalkShop activity on how we in Salisbury can tackle the climate emergency.

Democracy Café, January 2020

Two topics engendered a lively interchange of views: the assassination of Qassem Suleimani by an American drone was an obvious topic and in the second half we discussed why there was so little debate about the rising levels of inequality.

A lot of the early debate was about whether it was legal under international law. Article 51 of the UN Charter was referred to which is:

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

Legal UN Repertory

The point was made by several that this was not the first assassination, either recently or in history. Russia has often assassinated individuals (as we know only too well in Salisbury*) and as far as the near east is concerned, President Obama authorised a number assassinations by drone in the area. The issue with the USA someone said is that no state was above them. They chose whether to follow the UN or not according to their own perceived interests. This could only change if the veto system was done away with.

A significant area of debate was around the certainty or otherwise of outcomes. By assassinating Suleimani what did it solve? The outcome, especially in such a volatile region, was unpredictable. A replacement would quickly be found and whoever it was could even be worse. It rather assumed that problems were present in one person and so by removing them from the scene, the problems were solved: a dubious proposition. It was about culture not an individual.

The Near East has been a volatile region since oil was discovered in what was then called Persia and protecting the supply was a key component of British foreign policy in the last century.  It was suggested with the gradual lessening of western dependence on oil, its crucial role as energy supplier will diminish.  

Several people made the point that it was another example of the retreat from the attempt to establish a rules based way for countries to deal with one another established after the terrible events of WWII.  The Second Gulf War, the invasion of Ukraine, the attempted murder of Skripal here in Salisbury and now this assassination, all seemed to point to states feeling they were free to act in their own interests and ignore the UN.  

The fundamental question posed was: was it ever right for states to act this way for the greater good?  This prompted the question: would it have been right for Hitler to have been assassinated assuming it was possible?  [There was indeed a plan to do this but it failed.  There was the ‘July plot’ by German generals which also failed].  What in fact was President Trump’s motives for this attack?  Was it to distract from the impeachment enquiry or to bolster his re-election chances?  We cannot know of course. 

There was also a debate about consequentialism.  Since we do not know the future then we need to act on the moral case of the moment.  

It is probably true to say that the majority were concerned at the latest attempt to side step international justice and simply as though might is right.  The decline in the post war attempts at a rules and treaty based approach – not just with the Iranian assassination but more generally – was also lamented.  

Part 2: inequality 

This was about the increasing level of inequality in the UK and the question posed was why has it not made more of an impact politically?  It had not made the impact that climate change has done for example.  It has been a long term policy of the Left but it was felt that Brexit had overwhelmed the recent election debate and matters like inequality faded from view. 

The point was made that wealth was not the same as income.  Income inequality was not in fact increasing someone said whereas wealth inequality was.  Was it off the agenda?  It was part of the policies of various parties, the Greens, LibDems and Labour but not for the Conservatives.  Maybe it was another problem linked to the voting system.  

How was the ‘agenda’ set anyway and was it another example of the media driving things?  The majority of papers for example were owned by wealthy oligarchs.  Although the word itself was questioned the point was that the wealthy were able to set the agenda via their influence. 

The point was made that not all such people were bad and some did good things with their money.  Although this was true in some cases – and the example of Bill Gates and his foundation’s work in tackling malaria was a case in point – the fact remained that fewer and fewer owned the world’s wealth with half now owned by people who can sit on a double decker bus.  Much of this wealth sat in tax havens.

To become wealthy you had to own assets, you could not become wealthy by being an employee although there were some City traders who might disprove that rule. 

The question was raised about the distinction between wealth extraction and wealth creation – were they in fact distinct?  A point to be debated in future perhaps.  

The debate moved on to discuss value extraction and the case of someone who secured a forestry contract for example and sub-contracted the work to someone else who was paid a fixed amount.  Economists might talk about ‘rent’ in these cases but was there equity in the arrangement seemed to be the crucial question.  Some thought yes, and some thought no.  But the issue of risk never surfaced in the discussion since the contractor would be paid in most cases whereas the main contractor took the ultimate risk if things went wrong.  The point was that value was a collective enterprise and the current system did not really reflect that.  

Land ownership in Scotland was instanced as being a live issue and very political largely for historic reasons.  It was an example of the form of wealth inequality.  

Perhaps because this is such a multi-faceted subject we did not come to any firm conclusions and we did not really understand why this topic has so little salience in the political sphere.  

Peter Curbishley

*For those interested in the attempted assassination allegedly by Russian agents, Mark Urban’s book The Skripal Files, Pan Books, 2018, is an excellent read.



Interesting article published by the chair of Salisbury Democracy Alliance

Mark Potts, who is the chair of SDA, has published an article in the Educational Journal of Living Theories and it discusses his motivation for taking part in the formation of SDA and the Democracy Cafés which have been running successfully now for over two years.

He discusses the divisions following the Referendum and the need for a change in culture and behaviour if we are to see an improvement in political engagement. It is an interesting read and the article can be accessed from this link.

The next Democracy café is this Saturday 11th January 2020 starting at 10:00 as usual and lasts 2 hours. It is free to attend but if you feel able to contribute to our expenses that would be appreciated.

Democracy Café

This meeting (9 November 2019) took place a couple of days after the official start of the General Election campaign which will take place on 12 December 2019. Both topics chosen had a political feel to them – to be expected I suppose – and both were related.

The first topic was should we be able to delete social media history from when we were young? The concern was that rash or ill-considered comments made in someone’s youth could be dragged much late in life to embarrass them. This applies to political and other public figures of course and the point was made that the media was always on the lookout for such remarks. The main charge laid against someone in these cases was hypocrisy and some wondered whether this was said too quickly. Maynard Keynes is credited* with saying ‘when the facts change, I change my mind, what do you do sir?’

Someone observed that to change one’s mind shows you have one.

Much of the discussion focused on trust and how to establish it. Consistency was one aspect and being able to see what someone said in the past and compare it with today was a way. Deleting the past would frustrate that of course. Some examples were quoted of well known politicians arguing, before the Referendum, for a second one once details were known are now to be heard saying people knew full well what they were voting for. The question of course is where and when to draw it.  These were not statements made when they were young. 

It was noted that student debates were often on some nonsense subject so to hold someone to things they said then would perhaps be unreasonable. It was also said by several people that we all change our minds as we go through life, cannot politicians do the same? It would seem that time and distance in the past is the key here. If someone did change their mind, was it not justified to ask them why and to give a reason?

The debate moved on to freedom of speech issues and the issue of causing offence was discussed. There is arguably an increase in the number of instances where politicians and others are asked to apologise for ‘causing offence’ to a group, usually a minority one. There was a difference of opinion here with some thinking that causing offence was a real problem and can make minorities feel vulnerable or victimised. Sometimes this hate speech led to physical acts.

Another significant point made by several, was the importance of teaching children to question what they read and the information they receive. They should learn the important distinction between facts and opinions.

The second half of the session switched to the question ‘can a politician tell the truth today and expect to be elected?’ The election had started with some startling claims to spend vast sums on various parts of the economy. Could any politician stand up and say that this may be reckless or unaffordable and would in any event take many years to achieve (the promise of more GPs for example would take a decade)?  Was it possible for a prospective politician to say for example ‘our economy is weak, our debt is 80% of GDP, our productivity is poor and if we want a better NHS and more help for the elderly, we are going to have to pay for it with higher taxes.’  

It was pointed out straightaway that arguably there were a few who did(do) and Shirley Williams and Caroline Lucas were both mentioned.

The discussion moved quickly onto the life led by MPs now and in particular the role played by social media and the tech giants.  A number of MPs – particularly female MPs – were not standing again the main reason appeared to be the constant stream of death, rape and other violent threats they regularly receive.  The life of an ordinary MP was described at length in Elizabeth Hardman’s book Why we get the wrong politicians. She paints a fairly dismal picture of life in parliament and the expense and problems of getting there in the first place.  At the end of the book you get a good understanding of why we end up with such poor decision making, bad laws and poor governance.

Another key debating point was the nature of ‘fact’ and ‘truth’ and who decides? A lot of what politicians say is about what will happen in the future if they are elected into office. This is by its nature speculative. In this connection, a local MP can make all sorts of promises but they are promises about his or her party and over which they will have little say (unless they become a minister).

Needless to say the Referendum was mentioned and the point was made that our system was based on the concept of an MP being a representative. This had changed into them becoming delegates. So an MP who thought, prior to the referendum, that we should stay in the EU but his or her constituency voted to come out, what should they do? Were they honest to continue carrying out a policy which they believed to be wrong? Some thought they were not. Also, carrying on supporting a policy knowing that it could not be done was dishonest.

The role of the media was discussed and it was suggested that they often focused a lot on the future which, as we’ve said, is essentially speculative. It was here that we touched on the first debate because what politicians say they will do has to be looked at in terms of what they said they would do in the past and did they do it?

Was it the media’s duty to inform? Some would say yes but it was also noted that newspapers were about selling papers and they had to reflect to a large degree what their readers wanted. No doubt if there was a demand for facts then they would be provided. At least conventional media was subject to some kind of control and the laws of defamation. Social media platforms were outside anyone’s control and enabled people to say anything and say it anonymously. Which is where we came in and the role social media is having in the nation’s discourse…

No doubt we shall come back to this topic area in the future.  The next meeting was scheduled for 14th December but it may be too noisy to have a debate in the Playhouse.  We shall meet anyway and see.  

Peter Curbishley

*there are doubts whether JMK said this.

Climate change

Several of us attended a meeting of the Salisbury Area Board in the Guildhall last night (4 November 2019) which was a joint event with Wiltshire Council (WC) and the City Council (SCC). It was extremely well attended with – I estimated – around 110 or so there.

There were presentations by a WC officer and by the Mayor for the City. Each table was then asked to think about suggestions they would like to make and there was a feedback session with one from each table.

Both organisations must be complimented on organising the event and the numbers attending demonstrated real concern for the subject.

The first thing to note was that both the WC and SCC contributions were essentially top down. It was what they were going to do. They neither of them costed or showed a timescale in any realistic way. It took Prof. Graham Smith, speaking for his table, to point out the need for a baseline analysis. By this I assume he meant the need to assess what would be needed to achieve carbon neutrality by looking at where we are now and where we need to get to. Looking at WC’s webpage on the subject, there are no statistics, solid plans or timetable for what has to be done between now and 2030. Similarly with SCC’s plans.

Jeremy Nettle emphasised the need to ‘do something now’ and, as he put it ‘it was difficult stuff [and] costs money’. The council has a budget of £56,000 for the work. Both presentations however were short on how people’s minds, attitudes and behaviours could be changed although Nettle did say ‘the hardest thing is changing people’s minds’. It was just a bit light on how.

The elephant in the room of course was that those present could be assumed to be people who accept the threat of a climate emergency and that something needs to be done urgently. In the population at large there are many who do not. There are still many denialists.

One speaker noted the limited powers that local government has in comparison with the national government. In that connection we must mention our local MP Mr Glen who, according to ‘They Work for You’ website, generally votes against climate change policies and is openly dismissive of Extinction Rebellion. DeSmog analysis shows him at 15%, a dismal score. The question of making new homes more thermally efficient was mentioned. Fine but what about existing homes? Making rented homes more efficient was voted down by this government (supported as ever by Mr Glen).

But our biggest disappointment was that neither Mark Read of WC nor Jeremy Nettle of SCC mentioned a Citizens’s Assembly despite several meetings and emails between us and them on this very subject. Cllr Nettle is allegedly in favour and has certainly led us to believe this. Citizen’s’s involvement was left to a request for people to leave their names on a sheet of paper at the exit. This will assemble a wholly unrepresentative list of people – all of whom will be in favour of climate action – and drawn from a narrow demographic.

The approach does seem to be essentially flawed. Without a structured involvement by the citizens of Salisbury, guided as necessary by appropriate expertise and supported by baseline data, the result is likely to be an uncoordinated series of actions which – however well meaning – are unlikely to achieve the goal of carbon neutrality. Achieving climate change is going to need robust and grounded policies many of which will be met by indifference or hostility. The forces of resistance are well funded by the fossil fuel industry. Both authorities are going to need a lot of solid support from local people and on this showing, they are unlikely to get this.

Peter Curbishley

[These views do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance]


Welcome to the Salisbury Democracy Alliance Webpage.  We are a group of people and organisations dedicated to bringing deliberative democracy to the city.  We aim to provide citizens with the time, space and capacity to engage in free and equal dialogue.  We began in 2017 with the Salisbury Democracy café, which meets at the Playhouse every second Saturday in the month and has been extremely successful.  We now want to create the city’s first Citizens’ Assembly, which will involve randomly selecting a representative group of people to deliberate on an important local issue and make recommendations to our councils. 

We are supported by the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce)

There is no membership fee at present and we welcome new members and supporters.

Democracy Café

Democracy Café is held once a month on the second Saturday of the month. It takes place in the Playhouse here in Salisbury starting at 10 am and lasts 2 hours.

Can we make democracy work?

Can we make democracy work?

13 June 2020

In a period of sustained social, economic and environmental turbulence, we desperately need a political system that delivers fairer and more effective policies and decisions


Trevor Cherrett


In the UK we, along with much of the rest of the world, are in the middle of the biggest economic muddle in generations. Global capitalism, which roundly triumphed over the collective models of communism in the 20th Century, is itself now facing an existential crisis. Sovereign nations struggle to cope with massive debt and the EU is in disarray. International financial markets plunge wildly in a perfect storm of uncertainty about the future.

I wrote this paragraph in November 2011, following the economic crash of 2008. Now in 2020 we have an even bigger crisis to face with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The perfect storm has got stormier.

But we are still here. The political and economic arguments about the balance between austerity and growth after 2008 ended up with governments shoring up the banks and assuaging the markets, while `ordinary` people looked on, often feeling disgusted but helpless. Fierce public protests around the world such as the Occupy movement gradually fizzled out, as they were bound to. In Britain Jeremy Corbyn`s Labour Party attracted huge support for a growth agenda which sank into the sands of Brexit. But this tension between the political and economic arguments never really went away, and in the pending aftermath of the pandemic, it will be even greater, and not just because the economic fall-out is likely to be even larger than a decade ago.

Since the 2008 crash something else happened. Liberal democracies came under attack from populist parties – mainly on the right but also on the left –  who tapped into the anger of those who lost out from the banking bust-ups, often dubbed the so-called ‘left behind’. In sum, nationalism is on the rise, and globalism is in retreat.

So far, so familiar. But leaving aside the substantive arguments about what policies should be delivered to address urgent  economic, social and indeed environmental issues for a moment – such as whether we should once again attempt to reduce debt, or invest in a green economy, and so on – there is an existential question about how we should be governed, how policies and decisions should be made, and how our whole political system works.

Many questions abound about how we can now move forward. Does the rise of populist politics threaten the very notion of representative democracy?  Do we need to defend democracy, and if so what exactly needs to be done to strengthen it, or should we begin to acknowledge that it`s day is done and that we need to look for a different model of government?

Churchill`s often quoted (and misquoted) maxim that ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’ has a lot to answer for. I believe it has contributed to a complacent view that things might be bad in Europe and the UK, but that we cannot do much about it, and that things still aren’t as bad as they are in other places. But the rise of authoritarianism in China and populism in the USA and Europe are surely warnings for us too. [1] Given how bad things are at this juncture, should we not at least take a hard look at our democratic processes, to see how we can improve and strengthen them?

Five ways to rehabilitate representative democracy

My starting point is that Churchill was fundamentally right: democracy is the foundation for the fairest and least damaging form of politics, but that it can and should be radically improved – even rehabilitated –  to properly address the challenges it faces. So I am not arguing for revolution, but for a radical reform of representative democracy in the tradition of the Hobbesian state.

It has also evolved partly from my own experience of working within national and local government in different capacities. Thus, like all commentators, I am viewing the political scene through a particular prism. Through this prism I have witnessed many chronic deficiencies in the operation of the UK state across both the national and local levels. These problems deserve more detailed explanation[2] but for the purposes of this brief discussion I would summarise them as follows:

  • Political decisions are rarely based on the best evidence or science – that is, the best surveys, analysis, and lessons learnt from previous experiences.[3]
  • The UK government is far too centralised when it comes to making and delivering policy designed to meet the needs of very different geographical, social and economic conditions within the country.
  • The ‘First Past The Post’ (FPTP) electoral system is unfair and inefficient at electing political representatives
  • The House of Lords is something of an anachronism, but provides a valuable `second opinion` which deserves to be strengthened.
  • Political parties tend to reduce debate to a `football match` between parties, resulting in decisions that are less likely to be based on an informed debate on the substantive issues.

Most if not all of these criticisms have been rehearsed many times. Not everybody will agree with them, but they are not new arguments. Each of them are substantial in themselves, and together they create a massive dysfunction in the fair and effective running of a representative democracy.

Yet very little headway has been made on them over recent decades. Inertia and the threat they pose to vested interests appear to block the way.

In this paper I propose five major reforms that I think would make representative democracy work properly for our country, and that would help to resolve some of the damaging political tensions that have grown at all levels since the 2008 economic crash and amid the turmoil of the Brexit process,  and which will threaten us again in the aftermath of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Justifying policies and decisions on the basis of firm evidence

I believe we need to strengthen the evidence–based advisory role of the current civil service and local government officials through more coherent and transparent channels of information and analysis. An `Advisory Commission` (working title) would operate on the basis of the `scientific` approach[4], drawing upon the best peer-reviewed evidence from all sources including academia, independent think tanks, NGOs, and professions. Rather than Government drawing upon its favourite, often idiosyncratic, sources, decisions would rather be informed by the best available scientific evidence from a wide range of sources. This evidence would be peer-reviewed, and open to all and would provide the necessary foundation for a fully informed debate by elected representatives. Crucially, policy and decision-makers would be required by law to demonstrate how their decisions were taken in response to the available evidence. [5]

Devolving more power and resources from the centre

The UK is one of the most highly centralised countries in the world.  If we are serious about `levelling up` then we must devolve more power to regions, local authorities and local communities[6] The recently published UK 2070 Commission Inquiry into Regional Inequalities has called for new devolved , decentralised and inclusive administrative structures and resources which are sensitive to national and regional differences and local circumstances, and which  should also engage more people in the political and policy processes.

Make elections fairer

FPTP is manifestly not truly representative. There is nothing new here – the case for a more proportional representational (PR) voting system goes back for more than half a century, and for good reason. FPTP often sees national elections decided by battles in a small number of marginal constituencies. Alongside the US, the UK is one of only a handful of countries that do not have some kind of PR system. There is a body of evidence showing that countries with proportional electoral systems have considerably lower income inequalities, higher spending on social welfare, stronger environmental policies, have a better record on effective government and policy making, and significantly less involvement in armed conflict. [7]

But when it comes to electoral reform, party interests and public inertia – a lack of interest induced by what appears to be abstract, complicated and boring rules of engagement –  conspire to block change. Even when the greatest exponents of PR, the Lib Dems, finally secured a referendum of the subject as part of the 2010 coalition programme for government, it was squandered on the unattractive option of the alternative vote – which is arguably not a truly PR system in the first place. Now in the aftermath of Brexit the two-party state has returned with depressing familiarity, and there is no incentive for either party to change it, with the Conservatives opting for the status quo, for obvious reasons following their massive gains in the 2019 general election, and with Labour seemingly committed to `one more heave` under the estimable Keir Starmer, despite a lively campaign for electoral reform within the party.  So, it will be difficult to dislodge the tribal ambitions of political parties striving for absolute power.

Abolish and replace the House of Lords

Another reform that has been on the table for decades, and still only partially enacted, relates to the role of the House of Lords. The hereditary principle has of course no place in a representative democracy, but there is a case for replacing it with both a House made up of people with outstanding experience and skills which could function as the House of Lords partly does now, that is responsible for scrutinising legislation, and with a Citizens` Forum,  drawn by lot from the electoral register and charged with debating and advising on policies and decisions, informed again by the best information and analysis from the aforementioned Advisory Commission[8]. Both these houses would have significant responsibilities and powers to influence and modify government decisions, with terms of reference that would need to be carefully worked out to reflect their importance, and with responsibilities ranging from making amendments to outright veto power.

Limit the powers of political Parties

This is the most difficult and contentious area for change, but I believe strongly that the motivations and behaviour of political parties themselves lie at the heart of the malaise in our system of governance. While in previous centuries such behaviours grew out of a desire to represent particular interests – classically capital and labour – they now compete to run a complex state divided by many interests that are impossible to encapsulate in any one party. So, politics has become a football match between (and within) different teams competing for power – essentially a game in which victory often goes to the team that appears least worst to a public that are often already cynical about politics. And many take it as normal that the business of government is organised to keep the party of government in power, rather than necessarily to make the best decisions for the country. [9]

But isn’t there a better way? We cannot abolish political parties, but it should be possible to limit them by giving greater opportunities and support for alternative and independent candidates for election;  by giving elected representatives the responsibility for electing the executive – the prime minister and the senior ministers of state – via some kind of electoral college, and by limiting the power of party whips to force elected members to vote in a particular way. In this way, electors could elect the local representatives who best represent their interests.

What could possibly go wrong ?

Apart perhaps from the final proposal above – an electoral college of representatives who choose the prime minister and senior cabinet members –  none of these recommendations are unfamiliar. In fact most of them have been put forward at one time or another over recent decades. So, I am calling for comprehensive reform rather than revolution.

The fact that these reforms have not happened points to the inertia of our political system and the entrenched positions of those who benefit from it.

But leaving aside the barriers to implementing these reforms, what are the downsides? One argument would be that an executive elected by parliamentary representatives would not necessarily make a coherent team. But although the `team` chosen by a prime minister or a party may best represent a particular political `movement`, is it really in the best interests of the country? Is it not more likely to respond to the evidence presented by their selected advisors, rather than a broader base of evidence collated by a peer-reviewed advisory commission?  Even more pertinently, our history shows that executive government is characterised by rivalry, division and conflict, as much as unity or coherence.

A more general criticism is that this system would be too bureaucratic, bogged down in policy reviews and scrutiny, mired in the machinations of advisors and the debates of scientific experts. This was Max Weber`s argument in 1919, when he looked to the charismatic leaders of Western democracy for the way forward in the chaotic aftermath of World War 1, while being unable to foresee the events that followed in Nazi Germany.

And would today`s society accept the abolition of the presidential style election system in the UK, and the ‘X-factor style’ contest between competing politicians? The media would of course also resist this, as much of the `personality` would be taken out of politics. But the record of the last few decades in the UK – and the USA – suggests that the choice of strong, charismatic leaders such as Thatcher, Trump  and Johnson has created or exacerbated divisions in  society, divisions which highlight inequality and conflict.  It may be old-fashioned, but my argument here is that this kind of popular voting  may be fine for sport, entertainment, and celebrity culture, but  not for the political leadership of a complex  Western democracy.

Towards a better democratic model

In this paper I am arguing for a model of democracy that makes far better use of the knowledge, skills and understanding we have over vast areas of economic, social and environmental issues. This evidence is ignored too frequently in our political culture, for the tribal reasons I have outlined. By strengthening the link between policy and evidence, and strengthening the link between voter and politicians, I believe that we could make much better decisions for the good of our society. Those decisions will not always be` right` and will inevitably change as new evidence is gathered, and they will be interpreted differently by different value systems and cultures.  That is part of the scientific learning approach that has served us well in medicine, technology and many other fields of endeavour.

These are radical proposals, and in the UK we do not have a strong tradition of radical reform. Organic change, disjointed incrementalism – muddling through – is more the order of the day. But my argument is that muddling through is no longer adequate. Deep divisions in our society by ethnicity, generation and wealth, recently coming to the fore with public  protests against police behaviour and the toppling of emblems of imperialism, disaffection with existing politicians, and above all the apparent susceptibility of many in the population to populist rhetoric,  all seriously threaten the effective running of elected democracy. The coronavirus  pandemic potentially provides a `moment` that threatens to break up the current order, but also an opportunity for reform.

Essentially my thesis is that representative democracy in the UK and across the West is still stronger and fairer than the alternatives – but only if it is radically strengthened and improved by the kinds of measures I have set out. Otherwise I fear that it could be overtaken by its alternative models, with  demagogues attaining power through charismatic populist appeals to the people, or even with the emergence of totalitarian regimes like in China, that embrace capitalism to deliver the goods to the people but that stamp out personal freedoms.  I believe that by radically reforming representative democracy we can deliver outcomes that would be much fairer and more effective than many of the tribal, prejudiced, and populist decisions made today under cover of a complacent and cynical acceptance of the current distorted conditions of democracy.

And in a period of sustained social, economic and environmental turbulence, we desperately need a political system that delivers fairer and more effective policies and decisions, and that brings people together rather than dividing them.

[1] See The new battle for democracy, by Steve Bloomfield in Prospect, July 2020

[2] I have written about these problems in some detail in town and country planning, the journal of the Town and Country Planning Association

[3] A very recent example is the failure to learn from the results of the pandemic trials run in 2018 which demonstrated the need for stockpiling personal protective equipment in huge volumes.

[4] Paradoxically, the government has made a great show of `following the science` in its policy responses to the coronavirus pandemic. But it has not been transparent in explaining exactly how it has done so.

[5] This does not imply that politicians must `obey` the word of the advisors. Advisors advise and politicians decide. This is not an attempt to create an `epistocracy` – that is, rule by the experts. In any case the `science` works by trial and error, not by ready-made solutions. Nor can experts be purely `objective`. But politicians must show how or why they have interpreted advice in the way that they have.

[6] Make No Little Plans : UK 2070 Inquiry into Regional Inequalities – Towards a Framework for Action;  chaired by Lord Kerslake;  Feb 2020

[7] For example, Birchfield and Crepaz (1998) : The Impact of Constitutional Structures on Income Inequality in Industrialised Democracies; European Journal of Political Research 34: 175-200; Carey and Hix ( 2009). The electoral Sweet Spot: Low -magnitude Proportional Electoral Systems; PSPE Working Paper 01-2009,. LSE London, UK; Lijphart, Arend (2012). Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and performance in thirty six countries. New Haven, CT: Yale Press; Economist Intelligence Unit (2017): Democracy Index 2017.

[8] Citizens` Juries already have a strong track record of performance, especially at the local level.

[9] For example, over the last decade Ministers for Housing and Planning (and no doubt many other Departments) have on average lasted less than 12 months in office. Such appointments are arguably best understood as rewards or as stepping stones for members of the political family.


Trevor Cherrett


Trevor Cherrett is a professional planner with over 40 years` experience in rural policy and implementation at strategic, local and community levels. His career spans work in local and central government, academia, and the independent sector in the UK and abroad. He is currently a member of the Town and Country Planning Association`s Policy Council and actively involved in national and local rural policy issues. Trevor is Chair of the Wiltshire Community Land Trust and a former Board Member of White Horse Housing. He is author of many articles and publications on rural housing, community development and planning.


Will our politics change?

A debate is starting about whether there will be a change in the way politics is done in Britain as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. Will it be a ‘never again’ moment and force some fundamental improvements? I don’t think it will and in this blog I will argue why change will not happen except at the margin.

It is true that major events such as war or a outbreak of a serious disease does bring about change. I am writing this in English not in some form of French. That change came about because of plague which killed off a lot of the French speaking people at the top of our society and allowed in rough English speaking yocals into positions of power. The war brought about a significant improvement in housing provision.

The drivers of change

For change to happen, there has to be a groundswell of opinion – however ill-formed – for things to be done differently in future. People have to feel angry, affronted, or resentful at a political process and its leaders which contributed to the crisis. They argue vehemently for change. They may riot or march or do something physical to express their anger. There has to be anger in the air.

Another thing which might contribute to this anger is a flow of information which explains what has gone wrong. There also have to be polemics which set out how change for the better can take place. There is little sign of this happening either.

Ultimately, this anger has to find a voice. Almost certainly via a political party: someone has to set our a vision for a better world and a better run world. A world in which there is more equality of opportunity and where the benefits of our prosperity are spread more evenly. This has to be articulated into cogent arguments, and then simple phrases produced which encapsulate these ideas into ‘soundbites’.

Will it happen?

I don’t think this will happen for several reasons. Firstly, the nature and control of our media. That our print media is largely right wing and owned by foreign based oligarchs is well known. They are in a position to control the narrative and stifle unwelcome challenges to their hegemony. Readers of these titles will, for example, be largely unaware of the Paradise Papers and other major stories about the scale of tax avoidance carried out by the elite in our society. By contrast, they can run endless stories about scroungers and benefit cheats – who do exist of course – but are tiny in scale by comparison with the billions funnelled out of the country by the top 1%.

The broadcast media have been little better. The nightly No 10 press conference is a case in point. Various journalists are given the opportunity to question the minister and the advisers. It is of course difficult to do this properly across a video link. But their questions are over-long and, instead of asking one insightful question, they ask two and sometimes three. The minister artfully – and I suspect they are trained to do this – repeats the question at length, says how important it is, waffles around it and fails to answer the point. The journalist is then invited to respond and bafflingly, then proceeds to ask another, different, question which is also unanswered. The result is that egregious failures of policy and delays in responses to the crisis largely go unchallenged.

Such investigations which do take place – such as the BBC’s Panorama for example – have minimal viewing figures and are quickly slapped down by ministerial threats and newspaper allegations of bias.

Another crucial point is that this argument has largely been about facts, numbers and statistics. But none of the journalists or any of the ministers have science or mathematical backgrounds. It is like watching two people who cannot even open the bonnet of a car, arguing about how they might change a clutch. As soon as a statistic becomes uncomfortable, it disappears. So the death toll in comparison with other countries is no longer presented for example.

Finally, because of the pandemic, parliament is not properly sitting. In one sense that seems to be working for Keir Starmer who is operating in simulacrum of a court room, which suits his background. Early exchanges has enabled him to expose the emptiness of the prime minister. But the theatre has gone which means the exchanges are rather dull and forensic. Consequently, they do not get much airtime. The media wants conflict, anger, shouting and general excitement, not reasoned rational debate.

Why have we come to this?

The fundamental issues which have led us to our lack of preparedness and made us the worst in Europe are the neoliberal policies which have informed our politics for a generation. These are a set of beliefs which have dictated policy across a range of areas. Simply put, these are a belief in small government; that low taxes are best to enable people to spend their money how they wish; low regulation because this stifles innovation; that the private sector is superior to the public because they are inherently more efficient, and the best way to allocate resources is through competition. These are deep rooted and show little sign of disappearing.

Recent events have forced the conservatives to do the opposite. Government is bigger and more intrusive, regulations have increased, money has poured into the private sector to find a cure, competition has fallen away in favour of ministerial patronage and taxes will inevitably have to rise. There are reported to be great tensions in the party as a consequence of this. The right wing, free market and Brexit wing are quiet at present because during a national emergency people ‘rally to the flag’. This will end soon but importantly, it will be an internal conservative party argument which will not affect the state of our politics nationally.

These neoliberal beliefs have led to increased privatisation being introduced into the health service and the market led ideas introduced by Ken Clarke when he was health minister. Austerity was the cover which enabled Osborne to reduce funding for the service and the Lansley reforms also did more damage (what philosophy was behind those is a mystery, perhaps even to Lansley himself).

All told, the public sector, including local authorities, were seen as inefficient, cumbersome and of little value. They could be cut with impunity because nobody cared. They were helped by near silence from them as well. How often, even today, when the issue of what LAs are doing and the role they play in tackling the pandemic, do you see a local authority person interviewed? Rarely. They almost never appear on programmes like Question Time. Despite their size and significance, they can be cut, lampooned and denigrated to politicians’ heart content.

There is no groundswell of anger of people looking for fundamental change. Such anger as there is is about whether people can go out or not or how many people they can meet. The Labour party has to tread carefully because if they criticise the government too hard, they will be called disloyal. So far, there has been no sign of arguments about fundamental change from their people.

This is why I suggest there will be no fundamental changes. Sure the medics will get a pay rise – even the current crop of boneheads would risk denying them that. But inequality will continue to get worse. The super rich will continue to avoid their taxes. The six or seven posh schools will continue to provide a disproportionate supply of politicians, journalists, media folk, judges et al. Privatisation of the NHS and other areas of public life will continue however corrupt or incompetent the suppliers are. Power will still reside in Westminster and any kind of regionalisation will not happen.

Covid-19 will not change the fundamental flaws in our society.

Peter Curbishley

Talkshop event

Talkshop climate event planned

We are planning – on Saturday 14 March – to hold an event called a ‘Talkshop‘. This will focus on what the City might be able to do the mitigate climate change.  Some of you may recall that we were hoping to run Citizen’s Assembly but we were unable to secure funding for what would have been a much more expensive event.

Talkshop is a much shorter exercise and involves people, in groups, looking at various ideas to help reduce global warming in the City.  There are suggested ideas which will be issued on the day but you are free to suggest your own of course.  To give you a taste of the ideas, one is from Todmorden called ‘Incredible Edible’ and where a handful of people starting growing food to share and there are now 70 sites around the town.  Oxford has set up Climate Cafés to enable people to drop in and chat about how to improve the climate.  Successful apparently. 

This is in place of the normal Democracy Café which would have happened on that day but otherwise, the time, 10:00 am and the place, the Playhouse are the same.  It is free.

We are hoping for a good turnout but it is just possible we will have too many in which case you will be invited to stay as an observer.  If you do decide to come, please be prompt!  It is run to a tight timetable and latecomers will find it difficult to catch up.  

Don’t forget it’s the normal Democracy Café tomorrow, Saturday 9th February 2020 at 10:00



Democracy Café, December meeting

The December 2019 meeting took place a day after the emphatic win by the Conservatives in the General Election. Boris Johnson was returned with an increased majority of 80. The Labour party is now engaged in what will be an extended period of soul searching and will in a few months, elect a new leader. The LibDem leader lost her seat and although they increased their vote this was not rewarded with any additional seats

It was not surprising therefore when the various suggested topics all centred around the state of politics today. There seems little doubt that the main issue in the election was the seemingly never ending saga of Brexit. Boris Johnson had stuck to his key theme of ‘Get Brexit done!’ and this clearly had resonated with the public many of whom are fed up with the whole issue and want it all over.

The discussion about what happened ranged quite widely. What was the meaning of traditional Labour supporting areas in the north voting for the Conservatives? Many of the traditional jobs in large areas of the north have gone and with it those ideas of collectivism and solidarity. ‘Thatcher’s children’ were now the norm. Many have forgotten the battles of the past such as the Jarrow march it was noted. The achievements of trade unions have also been forgotten.

What do people mean by ‘socialism’ now? Was it some combination of public ownership and controls on capitalism? Someone argued for the complete absence of private capital. People wanted capitalism but with limits and were happy overall with a mixed economy.

Mention of a more equal press drew the only applause of the meeting. It seems undeniable that, although fewer and fewer read a newspaper, the relentless bias of the right wing press did have some kind of effect.

The discussion had focused thus far on the problems experienced by Labour and where they might go in the future to recover. The point was made on the other hand that the Conservatives had their own ideological problems. Their beliefs – dating back to the Thatcher era – were based on small government, low taxes, private enterprise, deregulation, competition and free trade. The effects of these policies were increasingly becoming clear. They have been acutely experienced by the ‘left behind’. To reverse these problems, to retain what Boris Johnson called the ‘borrowed votes in the north, and to rectify a decade of cuts to health, schools and to infrastructure generally, was going to require significant reversal of policy. All this while the next stage of Brexit was in full swing. Will the Conservatives be able to carry out such a change in their core ideology?

Individualism seemed to be a thing which counts now. Many of the public who are interviewed seem only concerned with their own situation not on wider issues. The ‘aspiration of the individual’ is what counts someone said. Or was it to be a member of a fairer society? Did people understand the difference between capitalism and socialism in any event?

Inevitably, we got onto personality. It seems that neither of the party leaders was liked nor trusted. At the Salisbury hustings for example, people laughed at John Glen when he referred to trust in Boris Johnson. Studio audiences also laughed when trust was mentioned in the same sentence as his name. Corbyn was widely disliked and distrusted on a wide number of issues. So is the result of this election a one-off and a result of people’s attitudes to these two men?

An argument developed about immigration – one of the prime political concerns today and one that crops up on the doorstep. Indeed, at the last Salisbury for Europe street event, there were two people with strong and fierce anti immigrant views. The difficulty it was stressed was the difference between genuine concerns about the scale and impact on the one hand and prejudice on the other. ‘White working class people look out of their door and see something completely different’ it was said. It was regrettable that words like ‘swamp’ and ‘flood’ were used however. The point that without immigrants, the health service could no operate, food would not be prepared and vegetables left unpicked was not made. The problem has a long history it was noted, Enoch Powell for example.

We continued along similar lines after a break and the discussion moved on the nature of the current system – a familiar topic for the cafe. Salisbury is a safe Tory seat which means that someone could live a lifetime in the City and not ever be represented. That an MP represents all the constituents cut little ice.

One theme was how well can the public understand the complexity of government? This brought up the issue of the Referendum: do MP’s go with what they believe or what the voters told them? This was the difference between an MP being a delegate or a representative. Large parts of the public seem to want the former.

Proportional representation has its own problems and can lead to a small party wielding disproportionate power. The DUP is a recent example. Now that Johnson has a big majority, he will safely ignore them. But in a sense that illustrates the basic problem: one minute the DUP is influential, a day later, they can be ignored. Whatever one thinks of the DUP – and few this side of the Irish Sea will think favourably of them – how representative and balanced is this system of voting. For three years, the ERG has wielded enormous power and influence over government policy. Now, a day later, they can be largely sidelined.

The point was made that democracy is about the ability to challenge the government and Gina Miller was instanced. It was about the right to speak. So in a sense, no votes were wasted as it showed the depth of feeling about a subject.


No definite conclusion but a widespread feeling that things are not right. The damaging effect of a foreign owned right wing press and its influence on voting was expressed. First past the post might, on occasion, produce a strong government which its supporters claim, but it more usually ends up with marginal government and does not represent actual voting. In Salisbury, some felt that they are never represented nor ever can be.

Peter Curbishley