books democracy

Book review: People Power, by Dan Jellinek

I picked up People Power: A User’s Guide to Democracy from the library recently. It promises to explain “how democracy in the UK works, in the hope that if we understand it better, we can help make it work better”. The next day the general election was announced, so it feels like a good time to be reading the book.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m a little troubled at the state of British democracy, which seems tired, abused and taken for granted. There are all sorts of things we could do to breathe new life into it, and reinvigorate our engagement with government. But it’s not a list of complaints. As Jellinek writes, “the best place to start trying to improve our democracy is to appreciate what we already have of value, and see how we can go about making it even better.”

People Power explains British democracy, piece by piece: elections, the House of Commons, the Lords, the devolution process, local government. It looks at how decisions are made, the role of the civil service, and how change is brought about through a variety of mechanisms. It’s admirably clear and balanced, pointing out strengths and weaknesses and distinctive features. The chapter on the EU needs an update, but otherwise it’s very useful.

The book shines a light on important characters, well known ones and more unusual characters, like the Chartist William Cuffay, one of Britain’s first black activists. It gives an insight into the working life of members of parliament, which ought to be better known, given how disrespectful people can be about their elected representatives. An MP shares their experience of taking office for the first time. They were given a laptop with a parliamentary email address, and found 800 emails already waiting for them on day one. It gets busier still if you get promoted from the back benches to a place in the government. “A typical ministerial working day runs from 6 am to 11:30 pm”. It’s not an easy job, and we should value our MPs more than we do.

It’s fair to say that there are lots of discrepancies and oddities in British democracy. Only the Vatican has more theocrats in government – those bishops and archbishops in the House of Lords. Councillors in some parts of the country are paid, and in other places they are not. The Welsh cabinet publishes minutes of its meetings, while Westminster locks their away in secret for 20 years before we can see what they discussed. There’s room for improvement all over the place.

And, in reality, improvement is also happening all the time. There are often new freedoms and new developments. We’ve had freedom of information, and changes to MPs expenses. Formal mechanisms for online petitions are quite recent, and a useful new tool. Westminster debates are broadcast live on the BBC for anyone who wants to watch. When the book was written in 2013, there were nine political parties in government in Britain across the various devolved parliaments. In the 90s there was just one party in charge everywhere.

Jellinek points out that because the constitution isn’t written down in Britain, it’s actually easier to tweak the way we do things than it is in many countries. But it’s also more likely that we won’t notice the changes when they arrive, because they don’t come with the big occasion of a new amendment. In fact, the book argues that British democracy is actually quite fluid and responsive. It’s not fast, but it’s far from static.

That doesn’t mean there are no problems. Party membership, the lack of trust, voter engagement, are all very low. There ought to be more argument too, in my opinion. “Disagreement and argument, happening in a controlled way, are essential to democracy” writes Jellinek. “We must never look at a row or disagreement as a sign that democracy is not working. It is the opposite: a sign of health, a sign of life.” This is precisely my problem with the EU referendum – the lack of argument about what it means and how it should be pursued.

Most of all, there’s a need for political literacy – a deeper understanding of how the government works and what our own role as citizens and voters might be. And People Power is great place to start.

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