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From Our Practical Politics Blog

Learning for Democracy: our call for political renewal

We call on all political parties and civic leaders to

  • Make it easier for people to take part in politics
  • Support learning for democracy through practical political education
  • Bring decision-making closer to people

so that democratic politics is more accessible, inclusive and better at giving people freedom and power over their lives, whoever wins the next general election.

Monday 15 Sept is the International Day of Democracy, the start of a week which will change Britain forever. The referendum in Scotland shows that people will take part in politics when they believe change is possible and when those who are active reach out to those who are not. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the United Kingdom will change, and the people must be authors of that change.

Democracy Matters is an informal alliance of organisations which enable people to have a stronger voice in society through education and support at the grassroots. We do it in many different ways all over the country, through adult and community education, schools, universities and in the wider community.

Some of us are working together to get all political parties to make specific commitments to provide political education and support so that everyone can have an effective voice. We want all partly leaders to make a strong declaration that they will make democracy the governing principle of society at all levels, and provide people with the means to learn how to make democracy work.

The following draft Declaration summarises why it is important and some of the measures to bring it about.

Our Declaration for Democracy

Democratic politics enables people to create solutions to problems we face as a society, yet many people have lost faith in our political system. Justone in five (18%) Britons trust politicians to tell the truth (Ipsos MORI 2013). Voter turnout was below 65% in all general elections this century and below 40% among 18-24 year olds. Turnout in local and European elections is even lower. At least six million people are not even on the electoral register. This erosion of representative democracy should be a major concern for everyone.

We do not believe that politicians are dishonest or incompetent. We recognise that politicians of all parties honestly seek the best for the country, even where we disagree with their policies. The problem is that our political system makes it difficult for most people to have an effective voice. This is bad for democracy, bad for decision-making and bad for the country.

People do care about politics. Many just don’t believe the formal political system works for them. Millions of people are active in their local community. Millions take on unpaid civic responsibilities as school governors, in voluntary organisations and campaigns of all kinds. Difficult social issues such as animal welfare, child abuse, female genital mutilation, modern slavery, land mines and climate change are being addressed because people campaigned, often for decades in the face of indifference or opposition.

Active citizens highlight problems that need to be addressed. Political competition creates solutions to problems. Elections let people stand for office, decide priorities, choose their leaders and hold them to account. Democracy is difficult, but at best it brings decision-making into the open and gives everyone an equal say in society.

Next year we celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta and the 750th anniversary of the de Montfort Parliament. These events symbolise centuries of struggles for freedom, human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Eight centuries ago this was about battles between barons and the king. Since then successive struggles and enlightened rulers very slowly made government more open and inclusive. Only in 1928 were women’s rights to vote made equal with men. Only in the 1950s and 60s did millions of colonial subjects win their independence. Now everyone over 18 has the right to vote. But many do not have a voice because they are not on the electoral register, no one stands for them and they are not heard in the corridors of power.

The internet, globalisation and new technologies are rapidly changing the world we live in, creating both threats and opportunities. Our democratic system needs to give people the power to respond to these changes in ways that make life better for all. To do this we need to renew democracy at all levels.

Before elections all parties promise to redistribute power and give citizens a stronger voice. Governments of all three main parties have devolved some power in a few areas. But the pressure of events and public demands for action still leads all governments to centralise control and weaken their promises.

All we ask is that whatever parties form the next government, they give people the means to take power and responsibility themselves, in ways that they choose, so that they can influence decisions that concern them.

In sport, business and other competitive activities people can get training and support to improve their abilities, regardless of what side they are on or what business they do. It should be the same for democracy. People need to understand how the system works and learn the skills to take part so that their voice can be heard.

We want all political parties to make a clear commitment to strengthening democracy as a fundamental principle of our society by jointly supporting our “Declaration for Democracy” and promoting politics as a public good. There are many different views about reform of politics and the voting system. We have not included any of these in the Declaration, but have instead focused on modest measures to enable people to take part. Taken together, we hope they will contribute to a more inclusive and effective democracy.

The organisations involved in drafting this declaration have a great deal of experience of how these proposals can be implemented and would be very glad to help put them into practice.

Make it easier for people to take part in politics:

We will do everything we can to create bridges between local communities and the political system by reducing barriers and opening doors into the formal political process, including:

  1. Make voter registration easier to ensure that all citizens can have an equal say in electing representatives at a local, national and European level;
  2. Actively promote voter registration and political participation among under-represented groups, including people with disabilities or special needs;
  3. Encourage and support individuals from under-represented groups to stand for office in local, national and other elections;
  4. Make it easier for people to join and make small donations to registered political parties and pressure groups;
  5. Promote Vote Matchto help people find the political party that best represents their views in an election;
  6. Create clear lines of political accountability for public policy and services at local, national and international levels;
  7. Support the Open Government Partnership to increase transparency, accountability and citizen engagement;
  8. Experiment with new forms of democratic participation and engagement at all levels of government;
  9. Create‘speakers corners’in public places for people to promote freedom of speech, public debate and active citizenship;
  10. Encourage and support people to be active in their neighbourhoods and organise independently of local or national government.

Promote learning for democracy:

We want people to learn how our democratic system works and how to take part in politics as free and equal citizens. We will therefore:

  1. Encourage all schools, colleges, universities, adult education providers such as the WEA, Women’s Institute and other civil society organisations to provide non-partisan education in practical politics, including debates on topical issues and hustings during elections;
  2. Secure effective citizenship education for all pupils across all key stages in every school;
  3. Enable all teachers of citizenship education to be trained in the subject and in handling controversial issues in the classroom and beyond;
  4. Promote whole school approaches to democratic participation and learning as ‘citizenship schools’;
  5. Allow youth representatives from registered political parties to speak in schools;
  6. Expand the National Citizen Service;
  7. Provide training and support for civic roles such as school governors, Health Watch members, parish or local councillors, youth councils, and other governing bodies in public life;
  8. Extend the excellent work of the Parliamentary Outreach and Education teams in promoting understanding of and participation in parliament;
  9. Make the Houses of Parliament and other civic buildings available for political education and debate when not used by elected politicians;
  10. Support the creation of a non-partisan Commission on Learning for Democracy to advise on the provision of information, education and support for participation in politics at all levels.

We want people to be able to take part in politics and shape the future. We want the manifestos of all political parties to include explicit commitments to working with local communities to put these points into practice and make this Declaration for Democracy an underlying principle of government.

Bring decision making closer to people and close the participation gap:

We will do everything we can to enable people who do not take part in formal politics to do so, including:

  1. Encourage Members of Parliament, councillors and civic leaders to champion democracy in their area;
  2. Give local authorities a duty to promote democracy and powers to create local democracy hubs;
  3. Experiment with non-partisan community organising, voter information sessions and other forms of engagement in areas of low turnout and target participation initiatives at those who do not participate at present;
  4. Encourage voluntary associations, charities and faith communities to promote political participation consistent with their charitable objectives and Charity Commission guidelines;
  5. Encourage careers advisers, employment services and volunteer agencies to promote civic and political roles as worthwhile opportunities for people of all ages, and particularly among young people;
  6. Recognise the promotion of democracy as a charitable objective like the promotion of human rights;
  7. Create transparency in lobbying to encourage greater equality of influence and minimise undue sway by any section of society.
  8. Create deliberative spaces for citizens to explore complex, controversial and persistent problems such as our aging society, health and social care, climate change, the future of Europe etc.
  9. Give post-16 schools, colleges and universities a duty to promote voter registration.
  10. Create a “citizenship ceremony” for young people reaching the age of franchise for local authorities, schools, colleges or civil society organisations to run.

We are doing what we can to make these things happen from below, but we also need active support from parliamentarians, party leaders and civic leaders at a local level.

Further opportunities to promote learning for democracy include

2015 will be “a year of democracy” with a General Election in May, the anniversaries of the Magna Carta and De Montfort Parliament, and the process of devolution or independence for Scotland,

Please join us to strengthen learning for democracy and inclusive politics.

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