Through the long leadership election for the new Conservative party leader I’ve noticed a recurring theme: the accusation that voters want unrealistic or simplistic solutions to problems so big that they couldn’t possibly understand. They want to have their cake and eat it.
Kemi Badenoch was one of leading proponents of the ‘cakeism’ accusations, calling for politicians to stop “telling the public what they want to hear”. The implication of ‘voters as cakeists’ is that only politicians are capable of taking the ‘tough choices’ that define a country’s fortunes, another cliche made by some politicians.
Those advancing the thesis rarely stop to consider its potential cause. I would like to suggest our system of politics and policy-making has something to do with it.
The primary method for having a say is elections every few years. Elections are great for many things – don’t get me wrong. At Demos we love democracy. But they are less than ideal for getting voters to consider issues in the round or weigh different options; this is vital for ‘tough choices’ to be made well. Given this, I don’t find it surprising that voters sometimes appear a little cakeist. The system creates those conditions.
That’s why we need to consider how to change our democracy. Supplementing elections with deliberative democracy – in which the public have to weigh and deliberate on different options – might be one way to achieve this.
There are many great real-world examples of this, particularly relating to climate. The Citizens Assembly on Climate, one of the most significant initiatives of its kind, brought together a representative group of citizens to deliberate on climate change. Among many of the recommendations agreed by its participants was a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030-35; a very real sacrifice we would expect to affect many of the participants.
I’ve seen the power of deliberation in my own research. Back in 2020 I ran a series of mini-citizens’ juries – groups of people coming together every evening for a week – with voters across the country. Their challenge: given an ageing population, how would you raise taxes to maintain public services?
Before starting the research, I lost track of the number of times I was told that the public always supports higher taxes – as long as they personally don’t have to pay them. What I encountered was quite the opposite. We reached consensus in the groups on the principle of a small but significant tax rise for all, provided those at the bottom are protected. Quite different to the view that we only want those better than us to pay more. People, together, make rational choices for everyone.
To me, what these examples show is that when the public are empowered and enabled to see decisions in the round, they are willing to make important trade-offs.
And perhaps most importantly, that’s in stark contrast to the politicians. Whom – despite all the talk of ‘tough choices’ – have ducked so many of the big decisions of late. Regulating the internet – delayed. Social care – no reforms, just more money for a failing system. Getting to net zero – painstakingly, slow progress.
But just as I don’t think the public are to blame, it’s also unfair to blame the politicians. They are responding to a public that has little incentive to be more than transactional in their preferences. And our political process, in which voters have little faith, provides little legitimacy to take the big, tough decisions.
To end this Mexican standoff – in which the politicians blame the public, and the public gets angry at politicians for being ‘weak’ – we need a new way of making decisions. At Demos, we call this a ‘collaborative democracy’, in which representative democracy is supplemented with new, alternative forms of decision making; from large scale participatory tools like Polis, to people in a room painstakingly, thoughtfully and collaboratively embarking on a process of deliberation.
The Tory leadership race is drawing to a close, but I’m sure the cakeist trend will emerge again soon. Next time, I hope someone is brave enough to offer a real solution. Instead of chastising us, a different approach to politics is needed; a politics which treats us as citizens and partners. Only then might we get a grip on some of the most pressing challenges that lie ahead.