To open up democracy, people in poverty must have real power

How can people who have been excluded from power play an equal role? Claire Ainsley suggests three ideas for reforming democracy.

New plans have been published by the UK Government to give local residents more say in decisions affecting their lives, as part of a wider strategy to strengthen communities and introduce participatory democracy. These are long overdue: we know 14 million people are locked in poverty and a daily struggle to make ends meet, which is simply unacceptable. We also know this problem persists because people on low incomes are overlooked and marginalised.

In an era of widespread dissatisfaction with politics, it is vital that faith in democracy is restored. But without tackling political inequality, well-intentioned plans could open up deeper divisions. So how can attempts to reinvigorate democracy really restore the trust of the people whom politicians are there to serve? And how can people who have been most excluded from power play an equal role?

I feel I have no voice in society. I don't have a concept of my voice being heard.
Voter, Oldham

Political equality is one of the founding principles of modern liberal democracies, yet people on low incomes do not feel they play an equal role in politics, policy-making or democracy. People on lower incomes are much less likely than those on higher incomes to describe themselves as ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ interested in politics. Overall people on low incomes feel less in control of their lives, have less faith in politicians to act in the national interest, and feel they would be less likely to be heard if they did express an opinion. Not surprisingly, they are less likely to vote or take part in a political activity like signing a petition or going to a meeting.

Interest in politics, by income group

Social exclusion goes beyond voting

Being considered equal to another person is not just about economic status, but also about how power plays out between us. It is easy to feel lost in a room full of articulate, confident, educated people, or not to walk through the door at all.

The social exclusion people feel and experience in everyday life goes well beyond voting, which is why considerations about innovations in democracy, which are generally welcome, need to consider the ‘participation gap.’ Social status is a strong factor in who exercises their democratic rights, and efforts to open up democracy need to close, not widen, the gap between the politically ‘rich’ and the politically ‘poor.’

Be honest – tell the people what you’re going to do, and just do it.
Voter, North Shields

What can be done to give real power to people?

Based on what the public say they want, here are three ideas to reform democracy:

  1. Promote collective self-organisation of people through community groups, trade unions, and new movements like the Poverty Truth Commissions. There are examples all over the country of how groups like RECLAIM and Salford Poverty Truth Commission are bringing people with direct experience together with policy-makers to make local changes happen.
  2. Strengthen representative democracy to make pledges more public and use digital technology to explain how policies affect voters, and report back on promises. Voters in Harlow suggested re-branding MPs as local representatives, and publishing monthly results in the local newspaper.
  3. Root policy-making and design of services in the needs, attitudes and wants of the public. Politicians and policy-makers should start with where the public is, using innovative, inclusive methods to bring people into design phases for policies, to base their solutions in the experiences of the people the policies are meant to benefit.

Public attitudes-led policy-making

Policy-making led by public attitudes

A model of policy-making led by public attitudes:

  1. Public attitudes, moral foundations
  2. Policy challenge
  3. Understanding the challenge
  4. Evidence and policy review
  5. Action ideas with citizens, lived experience, practitioners
  6. Test, iterate, reject
  7. Develop, iterate, rollout
  8. Public legitimacy

Source: Social and political attitudes of people on low incomes, NatCen for JRF, 2017

We need imaginative thinking

In the Government’s eyes I am invisible.
Voter, Birmingham

At a time of deep division and disconnection, we badly need imaginative and innovative thinking to make democracy work better. But we have to recognise the barriers that exist in our social interactions too.

In a new essay about how we treat one another, the writer Richard Reeves urges all of us to recognise that mutual respect is the foundation of a fair society: “We are equals when we meet each other’s gaze.”

Only once we acknowledge the profound barriers and inequalities still present in society can we hope to start sharing power more equally.