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From Our Practical Politics Blog

Why we need learning for democracy

Politics today is like elite sports in which a few teams have the best facilities and the winner takes all, while public participation plummets through lack of facilities, training and support. The game on the pitch is decided by men with money who hire top managers, players and coaches from across the world. Spectators pay escalating prices while public facilities for sport are run down or sold off. The game is dominated by sponsors, financiers and media companies who control its governance and manipulate loyal supporters to make money.

But public participation in some sports has increased dramatically as a result of public investment in training and facilities. Britain’s fortunes in the 2012 Olympics were not chance. They were the result of the decision by John Major’s government to spend more on sport in schools and the community. Low participation in politics can also be reversed by decisive action to increase investment in education and support for practical politics.

The most powerful in society invest heavily in political skills and knowledge to stay powerful. David Cameron and Ed Miliband hire top political advisers from across the world. Leading companies employ consultants, lobbyists and public relations staff to get their message to the right people at the right time to influence decisions. But people with the least power in society have almost no access to political education or support.

Participation in politics, like sport, takes skill and practice. For democracy to work, practical politics needs to be learnt as a basic skill like literacy, numeracy and IT, by doing it as well as study. Education for practical politics (EPP) should be universal, through schools, colleges, libraries, the media and online. It needs to be recognised as a vocational discipline like business, engineering, law, medicine or teaching. For democracy to flourish Education for practical politics should be as accessible and universal as the ability to read and write.

In a democracy, the lack of political skills, knowledge or opportunities prevents people from taking part, just as not knowing the rules of football or not having access to a pitch means you can’t play.

Politics is the practical business of making things happen through decision-making, governance and the exercise of power at any level of society. Politics takes places within families, firms and every other institution. Many corporations are bigger than most states and their internal politics matter for their performance and for wider society. Good corporate governance is critical for a productive, environmentally sustainable economy. The internal politics of charities, community associations, schools, universities and other organisations matter as much for the everyday lives of people involved in them as the politics of central government. The politics of the office, party, city and state are parts of a much larger and more complex global system in which everything is connected.

Low levels of participation in the formal political system may suit some powerful interests, but citizens who are ignored express disaffection in ways that affect the whole of society, or indeed the world. The politics of apartheid South Africa, Northern Ireland before the peace process or the Middle East reverberate globally. At a national level, race riots in the US, Britain’s poll tax riots of 1990 and fuel protests of 2000 shook the political establishment. But most disaffection is expressed in subtle ways, such as anti-social behaviour, non-cooperation, non-payment of tax or even self-harm. Many political systems are slow to respond to disaffection, first ignoring it, then dismissing it and responding only when threatened on the streets or at the ballot box, as in the rise of UKIP and Scottish nationalism.

All societies need effective political participation to solve collective problems. When people see their interests threatened, or an injustice done or harm caused, political action is often the best way to solve the problem. While many problems can be tackled by self-help, charity or private enterprise, collective problems require political solutions through changes in the law, regulation or public services. The brutality of slavery could have been reduced by charity or kind slave owners, but only political action could end it; smallpox can be treated by people with access to markets in medicine, but only concerted political action could eradicate it; nature reserves have all been supported by wealthy philanthropists, but only political action and the law can permanently protect land from commercial development.

Political competition between different visions of a good society and choices about what to do about particular problems improves decision-making. But if only a few powerful voices are heard,  our choices are limited and society is poorer as a result.

Democratic politics needs to be recognised as a public good like the rule of law, public safety and public health. It requires sufficient public investment and support for everyone to take part. Just as equality before the law is a fundamental principle of a democratic society, so equality of influence in making the law is essential for good governance.

The ability to take part in politics is extremely unequal and that if we believe democracy is a fundamental principle for governing society, then society needs to provide practical political education and support for all sections of society to take part as equals.

Hemingway once said something like “A few people make things happen, some people watch what happens, and most people don’t know what hit them.” In a flourish democracy everyone would be able to make things happen and no one would be knocked out by forces beyond their control.

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