Most people’s idea of democracy is voting in the national election once every five years and even then, only around two thirds of the UK’s registered voters bother. One problem is that democracy has got mixed up in politics and the other is that as a general rule, democracy is really boring.
I recently clicked on a link to the latest set of Bristol City Council’s cabinet reports and despondently watched it download. It would take many hours to read, but a skim through revealed there were several significant items including a call for a £1.5m fund to support affordable housing. It was of particular interest to me as a board member of the Bristol Community Land Trust (a democratic, not for profit organisation offering those that are least able to afford it a chance to help build somewhere they can call home) but it should be of interest to anyone aware of Bristol’s housing crisis.
When translated into the public domain the Council’s cabinet reports will emerge as press releases, ignored by almost all apart from the Mayor’s on-line trolls, who will then race onto twitter to blame him for everything. Even good news is spun as bad news. And it is definitely all George’s fault.
Except it isn’t. We don’t need to wait for the next election. We could, and to some extent can get involved in almost each and every decision that the public sector makes, at local or national level.
Imagine how different it might be if the information contained within those many pages had been presented in a different way – perhaps as a series of Facebook posts with a short explanation of the issue (Bristol’s housing crisis), a link to a webpage written in plain English with the background information (18,000 people on the housing register), a short survey to gather pubic opinion (should the Council be helping to build affordable houses, and if so how?), an on-line discussion forum (where experts can offer the public useful information to help them understand the issues) and then an electronic vote.
Of course, many will argue that is what Council’s Officers and Councillors are for. We pay the former to develop good policy and the latter to vote on it. If so, why does Bristol even have a housing crisis? Not to mention transport problems, child poverty, health inequality, air pollution…
The reason in my view is that these are long term issues that require long term thinking and long term decision making. Which brings me to my point about democracy being run by politicians. With a few exceptions, we know that politicians are far more worried about the short term than they are about what happens after the next election. Indeed, politicians are the least trusted profession in the land.
You, the people, however, can choose not to play along. You, the people, can demand that your elected representatives pay much more attention to the realities of the long term. You, the people, can challenge them every step of the way. In Bristol less than 500 people can swing a Council seat, often it is less than 10!
So, in the run up to May 2016 when, along with the Mayor and Police & Crime Commissioner, all 70 of Bristol’s Councillors are up for election, make sure your voice is heard on each and every decision that is being made on your behalf. Please don’t leave democracy to the politicians.