21 March 2003 - 23 March 2003

Correcting the democratic deficit

Chair: The Rt Hon Peter Mandelson MP

Over the weekend of 21-23 March, notwithstanding the hostilities in Iraq, we met at Ditchley to discuss an issue which has moved up the political agenda in recent years – the perceived democratic deficit in the political processes in most advanced democracies.  We were fortunate to have around the table a wide range of experience at both the national and international level and in having as Chairman someone with great experience, not only of the theory but also the practice, of politics.  We looked at the question from the point of view of national and regional, constitutional, and international and supra-national, issues.

In an initial exchange of views it was suggested that what was needed was a new form of political discourse, a new way of conducting politics with a proper balance between leading and listening.  Politics should not be a purely professional activity conducted only by a political class.  The lack of popular engagement in, for example, the UK had come out clearly in recent elections with fewer people turning out to vote than at any time since 1918.  In Euro-elections the figures were worse with voter disengagement bringing an 8% turn-out in Liverpool.  We now often had majority Government based on less than a majority of the electorate.  While an optimist suggested that, in general, low voting figures could be taken as a sign of satisfaction with the outcome of the political process and another participant pointed out that the proportion of the population entitled to vote had grown considerably even if a smaller proportion exercised that right, most of us saw this more as a sign of declining identification with political parties.  The assertion was made that most main political parties represented groups which no longer existed.  Voters, particularly the young, were more attracted to single issue movements.  Nonetheless we were agreed that political parties performed an indispensable task in democracy by linking and prioritising a wide range of issues within a single body.  It would hardly be possible to make the system work if it consisted only of a large number of single issue groups which failed to balance one issue against another.  But, argued another participant, voters were now better educated, better informed, more discriminating and less tolerant of compromise.  The old simplicities were no longer there.  No single theory covered all issues.  Voters were likely to agree with some points in one party’s programme and some other points in another’s.  And this came at a time when mainstream parties were competing to occupy the centre-ground of politics reflecting, it was thought, the absence of deep ideological divisions.  It was suggested that political leaders should not try to disguise the differences between them.  They should stress the deeper values to which they were committed.  If the electorate were unable to detect any differences they tended to resort to extreme “anti-system” parties.  In its recent past, for different reasons, Italy had been an example of a deep divide between the electorate and their political leaders which had resulted in a bitter anti-system mood.  We agreed the people cared more for issues than they did about parties.  Imaginative ways of involving people with issues could help.  Some British Parliamentary Select Committees now enabled voters to feed in their views on draft legislation as it was passing through the committee.

We discussed state funding for political parties and heard a range of views.  Some opposed the idea on the grounds that if parties could not attract sufficient public support they should be allowed to fail and not be kept going at public expense.  Others thought that public funding linked to the number of votes cast for individual parties could be beneficial.  Parties should have the capacity to think about, and research policy.  They could also take on more civic roles on local issues and possibly contribute to the citizenship programme in schools.  All seemed to agree that parties should not simply be seen as careerist structures nor as vote gathering machines at election time.  There seemed to be a certain level of civic energy in a society but this was currently not being attracted to political parties.  We asked ourselves the fundamental question – what would a country look like without a democratic deficit and was there ever a time when a democratic deficit was not apparent – without finding an adequate answer.

The relationship between politicians and the media was examined, with the rueful acknowledgement that one of their common features was their joint very low public esteem.  At times the press had encouraged the view that all politicians were cynical and corrupt.  This made trust between voters and their representatives almost impossible.  It was nevertheless accepted that the media had a vital role to perform through informing the public, promoting debate and holding politicians and officials to account.  The press often posed questions which people wanted asked.  We were concerned about concentrations of media ownership but no far-reaching regulation was proposed although some of us thought that a statutory right of reply should be afforded to those attacked in the press, together with a legal definition of the right to privacy for the personal lives of public figures.

We thought it highly desirable that the levels of understanding and identification with the political process should be raised.  The earlier in life an experience of a public event, for example, in school or local community, the more likely was later political engagement.  This pointed to the need to make politics more interesting and exciting.  Ceremonies which celebrated civic milestones in a person’s life could help.  One participant argued that ethnic minorities should be actively encouraged to participate so that they gained a sense of belonging to the community.  Many black Britons did not, we were told, feel British.  Lack of interest was not the real problem, frequently it was lack of opportunity or assistance.  An advertisement in a local UK newspaper had recently drawn 800 applications to shadow, on an unpaid basis, their local political representatives to find out what they did.

In considering the constitutional issues behind a healthy political process there seemed to be wide agreement that a radical devolution of political and fiscal power to local and regional groups would help to engage people more actively in their fiscal and public service issues.  Local tax raising powers were an important means of “internalising the costs of democracy”.  Such devolution, had, however, insisted one participant, to be accompanied by an acceptance of local variations in service.  This led to a discussion of the role of the market harnessed to political goals.  Most of us agreed it needed to be a real market and that those engaged in it should have enough information to enable them to make sensible choices.  Failure of institutions such as schools should not be ruled out provided alternatives were available.  Overall the signals from politicians to the public and vice versa were now more complex than they had been.

We considered the differences between representational and direct forms of democracy.  The merits of federal systems were discussed.  Behind all the structures, however, lay the primary problem of how to create a healthy democratic society of informed and active people where, we thought, the greatest challenge was cultural, not procedural.  People should have a strong feeling of citizenship and think of themselves as citizens equal before the law with a sense that the time and energy spent engaging in public life would make a positive difference.  This would be helped, some argued, if the political structures could be simplified and the various levels of accountability and responsibility made transparent.  Currently in most of our systems it was unclear where exactly political and fiscal responsibility lay.  Often it seemed that the two were not closely aligned either in a single individual or institution which led to confusion, anger and ultimately alienation.  Curiously for a conference with a majority of British participants, there was a general desire to see a constitutional court at the apex of the legal system responsible for resolving disputes between different levels of Government and for protecting the autonomy of local Government against unwarranted central interference.

We looked at the effects of Proportional Representation and at the arguments for making voting compulsory.  Some thought that compulsory voting was a dangerous way of trying to cure the problem of a democratic deficit.  Others thought it was incumbent on the political parties to enthuse the voters sufficiently with their vision to make them want to turn out. We were told, however, that there was no resentment in Australia towards compulsory voting.  It was acceptable there for voters to register their dissatisfaction with all the alternatives on the ballot paper.  It was also suggested that compulsory voting made it easier for new parties to enter the political market place.  Extreme parties could be checked by setting certain minimum levels of votes cast before any representation could be achieved.

In looking at participation in public life at the international level we were told that, while there might be an emerging global corporate and civil society, there was, as yet, no global democracy.  There had, however, in recent decades been a remarkable increase in the level of participation in decision making at the international level.  This was epitomised by the increased role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).  We asked ourselves why, in the past decade or so, NGOs had become so much more prominent on the international scene.  A variety of reasons were advanced.  Globalisation had resulted both in a reduction of faith in national governments’ ability to influence international events and also in an increased interest in decisions taken at that level which has impinged more frequently on peoples’ interests.  The huge, but so far ineffective, anti-war demonstrations were cited as an example of a disconnect between popular wishes and official policy.  NGO s had filled the vacuum and by campaigning on the basis of popular concern had, to a considerable extent, been responsible for the Landmines and Small Arms conventions and the establishment of the International Court of Justice.  Some questioned the legitimacy of NGOs. The current international system only recognised states as full subjects of international law.  NGOs could hardly claim democratic legitimacy (although one participant pointed out some had more members than the British Labour Party).  There were, of course, many different types of NGOs including trade unions and industry groups.  But we concentrated on advocacy NGOs and the part they might play in international negotiations.  We were in favour of having their voices heard in “the market place of ideas” but not of their having a vote at the table when the issues were negotiated nor when the treaties were signed. 

In considering universal norms and standards, we were reminded that most international human rights law is only fifty years old.  Nonetheless, human rights was an issue which attracted wide public interest and concern.  We noted that the question of state intervention for humanitarian purposes without Security Council authorisation (Kosovo) remained contentious.  We were, however, inclined to the view that many people worried less about interventions in future Kosovos than they did about seemingly inexcusable non-intervention in future Rwandas.  For the moment we were assured, the only actors at the international level who had democratic legitimacy were sovereign states.

Reform of the UN was an important issue in our discussions, but without a clear conclusion about the most practical course.  It was pointed out that only one power in the world, the US, had the military means to enforce Security Council resolutions which required serious coercive force.  Without US involvement the Council could pass resolutions, as it had many times on Iraq, without being able to secure their implementation.  But, as recent hostilities in Iraq demonstrated, if the US was persuaded its own national security was under threat, the multilateral approach to the development of policy could come under severe strain.  The concern was aired that recent events might herald the end of the UN as the authorising body for use of force.  In the short term, some of us concluded, “coalitions of the willing” would continue to do what the UN was unable to do.  But the “posse system” seemed to many of us unsustainable as an organising system for global security issues.  However, setting objective standards for consistency and objectivity, while desirable in an intellectual and legal sense, ran up against the problem that the Council was an inherently political body whose members were unlikely to accept an outside view on what they considered to be their vital national security interests.  This was the difference with the WTO where even the US was prepared to accept a ruling against its trading interests to maintain the overall benefit of an open trading system.  Against that background, the best approach for the time being might be to draw attention to the fact that the UN was more than the Security Council and that those important other functions ought not to be jeopardised.  Within the Council, Governments should try to settle their differences and build on what common ground there was.

In considering the ground we had covered, we noted that, apparently, party politics was out of fashion, based on a supposition about the death of ideology.  But, suggested one participant, there were political cycles and major differences, over, for example, the delivery of public services, could easily reignite strong political disagreement.  There seemed to be agreement on the urgent need to revive local government in the UK and that to achieve this, there was no substitute for some shift in taxation from central to local bodies (defined, suggested one participant, as organisations covering 3 million or more people, to achieve economies of scale).  In the UK we had seen moves in the way the major parties had approached campaigning with, first the Conservatives and more recently the Labour, parties introducing new techniques.  It was time to move on to fresh ideas.  No-one could predict the dynamic results of change in political ideas and their cumulative effect on the public as a whole.  The stubborn unwillingness of political parties to reconnect with the voters and find a new kind of political discourse would have to change.  State funding for political parties might help to stimulate new ideas and civil connections.  It should, however, not be used simply to help them turn out the vote on polling day.  At the international level there was increasing interest in, and concern about, international governance which directly affected the lives of many more people in a globalised world.  Interdependence was now accepted as a fact of life and was an important development.  While there was a general desire to increase the legitimacy of international action and much thought about how to create a rules based system of global governance, it was suggested that a greater effort should be made to understand the psychology of the USA post 9/11.  There was clearly a need for a better relationship between the EU and the USA and, to achieve this, the EU needed to make more progress in its internal debates.  The Convention, now in progress, would be more difficult.  Iraq had focussed attention on the external issues such as the Common Foreign and Security Policy.  Calls for cohesion and integration in the EU should not lead to the belief that democracy could be centralised.  To strengthen its legitimacy, it was suggested, we needed to draw on our national democratic processes.

I am grateful to all those who took part, in particular those who make the trip across the Atlantic.  At a time when political values and ideas are under intense scrutiny in Iraq it was useful to examine how systems in our own countries were meeting the aspirations of all groups of citizens through our political processes.  It is a subject to which we will need to return in the years ahead and is an essential first step before, in April and May we look, in two subsequent conferences, at the change in ethos and value of the public service and the impact of the media on the politics of our time.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman: The Rt Hon Peter Mandelson MP
Member of Parliament (Labour), Hartlepool (1992-);  Chairman, Policy Network;  a Governor, The Ditchley Foundation

Dr Simon Chesterman

Senior Associate, International Peace Academy

Professor Michael Bliss CM

Professor, History of Medicine, University of Toronto
Mr E Preston Manning
Senior Fellow:  The Fraser Institute;  Canada West Foundation;  Distinguished Visitor in Canadian Public Policy, University of Calgary and Dean’s Distinguished Visitor in Political Science and Canadian Studies, University of Toronto (2003-);  formerly:  Leader of the Opposition (1997-2000)
Professor John Richards
Professor, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, Vancouver;  Roger Phillips Chair in Social Policy, CD Howe Institute

Mr John Hancock

Counsellor, Trade and Finance Division, WTO Secretariat

M Olivier Ferrand

Rapporteur, President’s Committee of Experts Commission on the Future of Europe;  Deputy Mayor, 3rd District Paris;  formerly:  Special Adviser to Prime Minister Lionel Jospin

Professor Dr Ingolf Pernice

President, Forum on European Constitution Law (2001-02);  member, Europa-Kommission, Bertelsmann Foundation (1999-)

Dr Andrea Romano

Director, Italianieuropei-Fondazione di cultura politica

Dr Kennedy Graham

Senior Fellow, Peace & Governance Division, United Nations University (2002-) 

Mr Tom Arbuthnott

Europe Programme Manager, The Foreign Policy Centre
Mr Nick Bent
Policy Network
Ms Polly Billington
Head of Politics, BBC Radio One
Professor Vernon Bogdanor CBE FBA
Professor of Government, Oxford University;  Acting Principal and Fellow, Brasenose College
Mr Ben Bradshaw MP
Member of Parliament (Labour), Exeter (1997-);  Deputy Leader, House of Commons (2002-);  formerly:  Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (2001-02
Mr Patrick Diamond
Prime Minister’s Policy Unit
Professor Robert Hazell
Constitution Unit, School of Public Policy, University College London
Mr Dan Lambeth
Manager, Government and Parliamentary Liaison, Mayor’s Office, Greater London Authority;  on secondment to HM Treasury
Mr Michael Lugton 
Head, Constitution and Parliamentary Secretariat, Scottish Executive Legal and Parliamentary Services
Mr David J Murray
Deputy Chairman, Transparency International
Mr Andrew Pinder
Cabinet Office e-Envoy
Mr Greg Power
Special Adviser to the Rt Hon Robin Cook MP
Mr James Purnell MP
Member of Parliament (Labour) Stalybridge and Hyde (2001-);  member, Work and Pensions Select Committee;  formerly:  Prime Minister’s Policy Unit
Mr Ben Rogers
Senior Research Fellow, IPPR;  Director of IPPr’s working party on Active Citizenship in the public services
Ms Elizabeth Sellwood
Committee Specialist, Foreign Affairs Committee, House of Commons
Mr Matthew Symonds
Political Editor, The Economist (2002-)
Mr Simon Woolley
National Co-ordinator, Operation Black Vote

Mr John J Flynn

President, International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers (1999-)
Mr Brian O’Dwyer
Senior partner O’Dwyer & Bernstein;  Commissioner of the New York City Commission on Human Rights
Mr David Riemer
State Budget Director, State of Wisconsin;  Atlantic Fellow in Public Policy, Inland Revenue and Oxford (Jan-Aug 2002)