The myth that strong leaders will transform the fortunes of their parties is a distraction from the real crisis of democracy, according to an essay published today by Demos, the leading democratic think tank.
In Everyday Democracy: Why we get the politicians we deserve, Demos’ director Tom Bentley argues that our democracy is facing a crisis of legitimacy which the main political parties are failing to address.
Politicians’ ability to tackle major issues is undermined by their lack of legitimacy - more than half of the public describe both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition as ‘untrustworthy’. But Bentley argues that we have made genuine political leadership which tackles the big issues faced by society almost impossible.
“We get the politicians we deserve,” says the essay’s author, Tom Bentley. “As voters, we have unrealistic expectations of our leaders and their ability to deliver far-reaching change. People inevitably feel disappointed in our politicians, and many react by opting out of the democratic process altogether – which reduces the legitimacy of democracy for us all.”
“We don’t just need new leaders – we need a new form of leadership which acknowledges its own limitations, while challenging the public to tackle the big issues such as climate change or the pensions crisis by changing their own attitudes and behaviour.”
“The main parties are currently obsessed by a ‘strong leader myth’ which will do nothing to restore their own legitimacy or revive our political culture. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives have the appetite for an open debate about their future direction among their own members, let alone the country as a whole.”
The post-election crisis of democratic legitimacy has avoided the serious underlying reasons for political disengagement and focused instead on electoral processes, from reform of the House of Lords to proportional representation and compulsory voting.
“The current proposals for reviving our political culture cling to a model of constitutional democracy from which people are turning away”, says Bentley. “There’s a danger that they distract us from the real issues – how to connect the issues we face in our everyday lives, from our families to the work place, to genuine democratic choices.”
Bentley points to the democratic crisis of legitimacy in the European Union as evidence that an attempt to use traditional forms of representation to exercise democratic choice will not succeeded.
“The democratic deliberation going into the design and negotiation of the European Constitutional Treaty was conducted at such an elite level that it has become entirely separated from the exercise of direct democratic choice over it. When people are presented with such a remote ‘choice’ it is little wonder that it becomes a backlash against the political establishment rather than a collective consideration of vital shared interests.”
Demos is publishing Everyday Democracy as part of its continued commitment to democratic renewal. The essay defines everyday democracy as the ability to make personal choices in our daily lives that contribute to the common good.
Bentley points to new ways in which our families, workplaces, schools and the media can incorporate democratic decision-making. The essay makes a number of proposals to make everyday democracy a reality, including:
- Creating rights of initiative and petition, enabling community and campaigning organisations to play a greater role to develop policy agendas and share in decision making
- Introducing new forms of neighbourhood governance
- Promoting models of democratic organisation in the business, public and charity sectors
Notes to editors
- Everyday Democracy will be launched on Wednesday 1st June, 6-8 pm. The launch event will take place at Demos, Third Floor, Magadalen House, 136 Tooley Street, London, SE1 2TU. Please register for the event by contacting Demos on 020 7367 6340 or firstname.lastname@example.org
- Everyday Democracy: Why we get the politicians we deserve is published by Demos on Wednesday 1st June 2005. Copies can be downloaded from www.demos.co.uk/publications/everydaydemocracy or ordered from Central Books on 020 8986 5488.
- Tom Bentley is Director of Demos. He has written numerous publications on subjects ranging from education and public service reform to creativity and social change, democracy and governance.
- Demos is the think tank for everyday democracy. We believe everyone should be able to make personal choices in their daily lives which contribute to the common good.