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Today sees the publication of a report from the think-tank Demos which argues that supermarkets should be seen as an intergral part of creating the so-called ‘Big Society’. The report’s author said:

“[The supermarkets] have a role to play in helping deprived communities to regenerate by reducing stigma, boosting community morale and bringing low-cost quality produce into the area. It’s easy to be cynical about mainstream retail chains, but they can be the game-changer for transforming perceptions within and outside rundown neighbourhoods.”

The only problem being that, in the USA at least, supermarkets have been linked with a decline in civic life and the closure of those very institutions that the Big Society claims to promote.

When two economists, Stephan Goetz and Anil Rupasingha, carried out a detailed study [1] in the US of the links between Wal-Mart and “social capital” – the community cohesion and mutual support that makes neighbourhoods work – they were astonished to find that the presence of a Wal-Mart nearby brought the voting turn-out down.

Other measures of social capital went down too. They found that communities that gained a Wal-Mart during the decade had fewer local charities and local associations such as churches, campaign and business groups per capita than those that did not. But why?

It seems that by crushing smaller businesses and losing the local knowledge and relationships they embody, the supermarket economic model – used by its UK subsidiary Asda, and widely copied by rivals such as Tesco – cuts the threads that hold an engaged community together. Big supermarkets, often lured by grants into regeneration areas, have not acted as useful anchors but instead have competed, often unfairly, with the surrounding businesses – sucking money out of the local economy.

Governments have mistaken being “big business-friendly” with being pro-enterprise. And supermarkets have not only killed the rich diversity of producers, suppliers and shops that are essential to a resilient economy, they are also dissolving the glue that holds communities together.

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[1] Stephan J. Goetz and Anil Rupasingha (2006) ‘Wal-mart and social capital’, American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Vol 88, No 5.

Bookmark and Share David Boyle is a nef fellow, a writer and the editor of nef‘s newspaper, Radical Economics.

“I pondered all these things,” wrote William Morris in A Dream of John Ball, “and how men in fight and lose the battle and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat. And when it comes, turns out not to be what they meant and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”

Morris was right, and he seems to have hit on a profound truth about politics.  Change is deeply paradoxical, and – although the grammar of progress eludes most politicians – we achieve what we achieve sideways, like crabs.

When we win we are also at the moment of disappointment; when we lose then paradoxically things happen as a result.  It’s confusing, but that is how it works.

This is one of those paradoxical moments, because we are about to see the Conservatives support electoral reform in the Commons, if not outright PR.  The political shift is not yet complete, and it certainly won’t be embraced by all 306, but it has begun.

A quick race through political history shows that this isn’t actually very unusual.  It was Conservatives who extended the franchise in 1867, who reformed factories and extended free education.  It was the Tories who made Ireland independent.

Not because they really had much taste for it, but because of something else.  When Conservatives realise that radical reform is inevitable, then – in the end – they prefer to do it themselves.

In the case of PR, the alternative is that Labour will do it, when they next claw their way to power.  Then we risk Labour-style PR, with list systems that leave the party machines in control.

It is the historic destiny of the Conservative Party to introduce PR a different way, setting Britain on the path towards proportional representation in a way that retains that link between MPs and their constituencies.  The debate is about Alternative Vote now, but that is now so far from the Irish system of single transferable vote – giving the maximum amount of choice to the voters, and keeping van all-important constituency link.

That will mean bigger, multi-member constituencies.  But then, that is what Britain used to have.  It is a potential Conservative compromise.

What we are all learning this month is that strong, decisive and effective government isn’t quite what Conservatives thought it was.  In the end, giving absolute power to a minority isn’t either stable or decisive.

When we face the kind of problems that now face Britain – loss of confidence in the markets, the urgent need to cut the deficit – then minority power doesn’t work.  It isn’t stable and it can’t unite the nation.  The only thing that will work, and give stability, is government that is backed by a majority.  That applies now, but it will apply in the future too.

History suggests that this is the moment when enough Conservatives realise that, and grasp the opportunity to give power back to the voters.  In the heat of the moment, they agreed to back AV, but the logic suggests that many of them will go further.

Watch this space. They will wriggle, but in the end they will back PR.

This letter appeared today in The Times

Sir,

David Cameron defends the first-past-the-post system as he claims that it allows for voters to throw out a government (interview, April 22). However, our current electoral system denies this choice to the majority of voters. Voters can only instigate a change in government by returning a new MP and thereby influencing the balance of power in Westminster.

Yet more than 60 per cent of seats are so safe that it is all but impossible for them to change hands. Only voters in marginal seats can exert their full democratic power and all the main political parties know this. Politicians therefore spend their time crafting policies and soundbites for the swing voters in “key marginals”. Meanwhile, the rest of us are left wondering what happened to the idea of “one person, one vote”. As the two-party system breaks down, growing numbers of electors grasp how the current system robs them of their democratic rights by serving only the vested interests of career politicians, suppressing the plurality of political viewpoints and breeding disengagement.

We must create a fairer and more representative way of electing our future governments.

Nic Marks, nef (the new economics foundation)

Professor Joni Lovenduski, Birkbeck College

Dr Ricardo Blaug, University of Leeds

Ken Ritchie, Chief Executive, Electoral Reform Society

Pam Giddy, Director, Power 2010

Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg, Director, Democratic Audit

Stuart Weir, Associate Director, Democratic Audit

Peter Facey, Director, Unlock Democracy

Anthony Barnett, Founder, openDemocracy

Gavin Hayes, General Secretary, Compass

Jonathan Bartley, Co-Director, Ekklesia

Will Straw, editor, Left Foot Forward

Sunny Hundal, editor, Liberal Conspiracy

Bookmark and ShareStephen Whitehead is a project manager in the Democracy and Participation team at nef

One of the most enduring myths about the decline in British democracy is that of the apathetic voter, too lazy to take part. But it’s nonsense. All over the UK, people care passionately about the community, the country and the world in which they live. They volunteer, they campaign, they sign up to initiatives like 10:10 to help look after the environment.

But for many engaged, passionate people, politics seems like a dead end. The individualistic,  impotent tools that we are offered to hold government to account – intermittent elections where most votes are wasted and the choice is between parties competing to represent the same narrow set of floating voters – simply doesn’t seem worth the time it takes. But we shouldn’t let that fool us into thinking that people don’t care.

I was reminded of this again last month when I attended the Power 2010 deliberative poll which brought 130 ordinary Britons together to discuss ways to improve British democracy. Many of the participants were cynical about the politicians who claim to represent us. But all of them were passionate about making our government more democratic.

Together, by talking through the issues and cross-examining experts from across the spectrum of opinion, these citizens assembled a shortlist of reforms which they think will bring democracy back to the people.

From proportional representation to a written constitution, from stronger local government to a bill of rights, these ideas represent many long-fought arguments about what’s wrong with the British state. But there are also some ideas which break new ground. My particular favourite is the call for more events just like the one I attended – deliberative public consultations on all of the major decisions facing local and national governments. These events give people a chance to really get their hands on the business of government, and the quality of the debates and decisions offers a sharp rebuke to those who say that the public are too lazy, stupid or reactionary to be trusted with power.

The next stage of the Power 2010 project is a public vote on which of the final five ideas will form the basis of the reform campaign that will kick in to high gear in the run up to the general election. This is a once in a generation chance for us to force the issues we care about on to the agenda. So please take the time to vote for deliberation and take a step toward putting political power back into the hands of the people best qualified to use it – all of us.

Bookmark and SharePerry Walker is head of the Democracy and Participation team at nef

A new dawn for democracy? (Photo by v1ctory_1s_m1ne via Flickr)

One of the most interesting constitutional reform projects to arise in the wake of last year’s expenses scandal is Power 2010. Rather than relying on academics, politicians or journalists to tell us what reform is needed, Power 2010 asked members of the public to submit their own ideas.

Browsing through the ideas sent in, I was struck by two things. Firstly, people care about democracy. The enthusiasm and imagination on display, gives lie to the story of the apathetic and disengaged public often peddled by journalists and politicians. Secondly, there is a great deal of disagreement about what needs to be done. From more direct democracy, to new ways of holding politicians to account, to electoral reform, to ideas to redistribute political power, the range of ideas on display is so broad that it was difficult to know where to begin.

To get my head round the ideas, I went back to first principles. I thought first of John Stuart Mill, who said, ‘a people among whom there is no habit of spontaneous action for a collective interest – who look habitually to their government to command or prompt them in all matters of joint concern – have their faculties only half developed.’ Democracy is a muscle. You don’t build the muscles of your body by watching an athlete on the telly, and you don’t build your democratic muscles by watching election coverage. To get better at democracy, we need to practice politics ourselves, in referendums, town-hall meetings or public debates, not just watch it on the news.

I thought second of Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln didn’t talk about ‘government by the politicians, for some of the people’. Rather, he referred to “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. For me, democracy has never been so well, or so succinctly, defined. I coupled Lincoln with British academic Peter Reason, who wrote, ‘participation is a political imperative: it affirms the fundamental human right of persons to contribute to decisions which affect them. Participation is thus fundamental to human flourishing.’ For example, evidence shows that people participating in referenda in Switzerland are significantly happier.

I thought third of American educationalist John Dewey, who is said to have remarked on his ninetieth birthday that ‘democracy begins in conversation’. I contrasted that with some lines by G K Chesterton, in The Secret People:

Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget;
For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet.

From these quotes, I drew three conclusions. First, that while we need more referendums – an idea which croups up over and over again – the danger is that they omit the information and the conversation that helps people form good judgements. Second, that if we are to exercise our muscles, we have to make the effort to find common ground with people with whom we disagree. Third, that in order to build up those muscles, we also have to address the problematic trade-offs that politics has always involved, especially in the next few years as we are forced to make difficult decisions about how to cut public spending.

How do we achieve these things? From the hundreds of great ideas contributed to Power 2010, I’ve picked out two ideas that seem particularly relevant. One idea developed here at the nef is that of ‘preferendums’: sophisticated referenda which let the public control what’s on the ballot paper as well as the outcome. A second idea, which is new to me, is ‘Sarah in London’s’ idea for

regular citizens meetings where communities can come together to seek information, exchange ideas and hold their representatives to account. In very different ways, these two ideas point to a new kind of democracy – one where power resides not only in elected representatives and appointed officials, but also in citizens themselves, working together to build a society around the things that really matter.

You can see all the ideas contributed to Power 2010 and sign up to support their call to change British democracy for the better at www.power2010.org.uk

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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.