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Why we need a Commission on Learning for Democracy

Most people in Britain don’t know how the system works and have almost no opportunities to learn how to have an effective say. People in powerful positions, on the other hand, get a great deal of support to make their voice heard in the intense competition for influence. Unequal access to power undermines democracy and leads to poor governance at all levels. The lobbying and public relations industry employs about 61,600 people. Its turnover in 2011 was about £7.5 billion, of which £5.5bn was in house.[1]  This includes business interests as well as public and voluntary sector. The latter employs about 5,000 campaigners, less than 10% of the total. Spending on lobbying and PR in the UK is about a hundred times more than spending by political parties. All three main political parties spent an average of £68m a year from 2001-11 according to one eminent source[1] or £110m a year from 2005-09 according to Democratic Audit,[2] when the combined turnover of the three main parties was £349 million. Large individual donations accounted for 25 to 60 per cent of the two larger parties’ income over the last decade, showing the importance of corporate and personal wealth for party politics.

Unequal access to power undermines democracy and leads to poor governance at all levels

A Commission on Learning for Democracy would ask three questions:

  1. What knowledge and abilities do people need to take part in politics effectively?
  2. What is the current state of political knowledge and ability, and where do people get it?
  3. By what means can political ability and understanding be developed, particularly for those who currently have least confidence and ability to take part in politics?

The Commission would provide advice to government and all agencies which provide information, education and support for participation in politics, including schools, colleges, universities, community organisations, local authorities, public service and public service media.

It would draw on the work of the Speakers’ Commissions and the Crick Reports, as well as international experience of education for citizenship and political education abroad, including the Folk High School and study school movements in Scandinavia; the German Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb) which seeks to “reinforce democratic consciousness” for “informed, critical and active” citizens; the Truman Commission on Higher Education for Democracy in 1946, which led to the establishment of a network of public community colleges in the US; and education for democracy in Eastern Europe and developing countries sponsored by the British government, among others.

Its membership should include senior figures respected by all major political parties as well as educators, public service broadcasters, researchers and people from civil society with experience of promoting public participation and education for practical politics.

Titus Alexander is convener of Democracy Matters, writing in personal capacity. This proposal is based on a discussion among members and included in our ‘Declaration for Democracy’ before the 2015 general election.

Notes

[1] Political party finance: Ending the big donor culture, Thirteenth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Chair: Sir Christopher Kelly KCB,Nov 2011, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/thirteenth-report-of-the-committee-on-standards-in-public-life

[2]  Stuart Wilks-Heeg and Stephen Crone, Funding Political Parties in Great Britain: A Pathway to Reform, Democratic Audit, 2010, p7

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