The Campaign for Democracy is a new organisation campaigning for political reform through the introduction of Direct Democracy and a Constitutional Commission. Their campaign aims to target the crucial swing voters in the next general election (what they term "the pressure point"), urging them to make the right to hold referendums a pre-condition of their support for a political party.
What follows is an interview with Graham McArthur of the Campaign for Democracy. This interview took place in early 2009. Questions where posed by Mark Evans of the Project for a Participatory Society – United Kingdom.
Graham, could you start by telling me a little bit about where the Campaign for Democracy came from. Who started it and when was it launched?
I started it. I am the person who made the connection between the power that the floating voters have, which is well understood, and the idea of using that power to give us the right to decide how we are governed as well as who governs us, something we can all unite behind. It’s starting right now! The aim is to tell as many people as I can about it, giving talks, writing articles, bulletins, etc. and starting up a grass roots campaign. I also supplied the money for the research phase.
So you financed and started this campaign all by yourself? Are you still working alone or have you got a team working with you now that the campaign has launched? Also, can you tell us a little bit about your background – what key events in your life have lead to you initiating this campaign?
I’m working alone now, but I am starting to get people come into this from all over the country as I arrange talks, mainly going to the Transition Town groups and environmental campaigners. We’ve got a spot at the Green Party Fringe as well. I did have a team on it, up to six people, some part-time some full-time doing the research and planning. That’s what cost the money. No key events led to it other than making the original connections.
Can you tell me what, in your opinion, is wrong with the existing democratic system here in the UK? Some people might ask why, in a modern democracy like Britain, we need a campaign for democracy?
The only real test of a system is whether or not it works. Our financial systems are a mess, and they have destroyed the economy. We fail to deal with deeply rooted long-term problems like climate change and we are vulnerable to the approaching oil price shocks. We need to fix the system before we can do anything else, learning from others, like the Scandinavian countries about creating happy and content societies.
Direct democracy creates a society that over time becomes engaged and informed, providing it has the right safeguards built in, and crucially breaks parliamentary control over the development of society. The constitutional reform process is a very important part of our system as it enables us to create political structures that are designed to solve problems, but the campaign runs much deeper than that. Before we can decide what systems we need, we have to decide what sort of society we want to live in, and that it is going to be a wide and deep debate. Only then can we begin to create the systems that will lead to a just and sustainable society, a society that is happy and content.
You mentioned direct democracy in very positive terms. Your web site states – "We believe the people of Britain should have the right to decide how they are governed as well as who governs them" and also states that "These systems must also be capable of challenging groups that have undue influence on our political system". Can you tell us what you mean by this? Who are these groups and how exactly does your proposed new system achieve these objectives?
We are very positive about direct democracy systems, but only if they have been carefully set up with the right checks and balances. I see DD as an important check and balance on systems that include representative government.
‘Groups that have undue influence’ covers any group or individual that exerts too much power. First, who those groups are should be a matter for debate, it’s not for us to say, but the idea is that any abuse of power can be stopped no matter where it comes from. As an example let us consider media ownership. In theory it does not matter who the owners are if the editors are genuinely independent, in practice it matters a great deal and it is a problem that must be addressed, the question being who should deal with it and how. Our system would enable organisations like the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom to work with other organisations like the National Union of Journalists to create proposals for increasing press freedom, integrity and diversity. Once their proposals were ready they could collect the signatures they need to approach the Commission and if the Commission believed their proposals were in the public interest they would go forward to Parliament. If Parliament rejected the proposals they would go to referendum. Most good proposals would be adopted by Parliament as Parliamentarians could not afford to be seen as working against the public interest. The same process would be available to any campaigning group in the country, enabling us to accelerate the evolution of our political systems and resulting in systems that were designed to lead us towards a sustainable future.
From what you are saying it sounds as if the system that the Campaign for Democracy wants to see in place here in Britain has the potential to bring about progressive social transformation. For example, you mention how this new democratic system would enable campaign organisations to propose reforms that would promote press freedom. Now we all know how important press freedom is for a meaningful democracy to function so I can see why you highlighted that example. But you also say "The same process would be available to any campaigning group in the country". This makes me worry that the new system you advocate isn’t as inherently progressive as your answer suggests. I mean, what is stopping campaign groups organising for regressive social transformation? I’m thinking here of racist, sexist or fundamentalist campaign organisations.
The system should not be inherently ‘progressive’ but only because it shouldn’t be inherently anything, however to find out how it will be we need to examine human nature. Research shows that about three-quarters of us are basically unselfish and that is what we need to build on, our behaviour. We are social animals with a deeply embedded sense of justice, a tendency to punish antisocial behaviour and reward positive behaviour, and these traits should lead to a much healthier and happier society once they are released. It is true that any organisation could try and use these processes in a negative way, which is why we are clear that we must have safeguards in place. If you look at our website you will see that we have ten separate pages covering the checks, balances and safeguards you need to have in place to make the system work well. In general terms all proposals must comply with human rights and equality legislation before going forward and referendums should require a minimum number of signatures before going forward. One aspect of the signature requirement is that it slows the referendum process down making sure that there is sufficient time for the issues to be properly discussed. That discussion also ensures that over time our society becomes better informed and more involved. In Switzerland they recently had a vote on the recognition of civil partnerships for gay couples and a quote from one of the campaigners, Francois Brutsch, sums up the situation. ‘We ourselves were surprised to find the people in the street more willing to listen and more supportive than we thought. The campaign has produced openness and understanding, leading to a broad consensus on a pragmatic proposal. Of course the Catholic church, virtually alone, is still against this law.’ The best protection is an informed involved society. That will take time, but I don’t see any other way forward
I suspect a lot of people reading this might think that this new system sounds great in theory but in practice it would be a nightmare. Direct democracy might well create a more just society, but it would do so at the expense of everyone having to spend much of their free time voting in endless referendums. How would you reassure people that this would not be the case? Above you mentioned Switzerland as a real life example. What do you think the Swiss system teaches us about the practicalities of direct democracy that might give people more confidence in supporting the Campaign for Democracy?
Even some Swiss believe they have to many referendums! They have four referendum days for national referendums, they have cantonal referendums and then they often have local referendums all on different days.
The number you have depends on the signature barrier, too low a number and the system gets buried under an avalanche of ridiculous proposals, too high and nothing changes, so that is something we have to think about. It doesn’t matter if we get it a bit wrong to begin with as we can change it with the commission later. Another answer is to have all the referendums for the different levels of government on the same day, but the most important aspect of the referendum system is that it keeps government in check. We still have representative democracy at all levels as part of the system, and the aim is that they deal with most of the work, but the knowledge that the people can challenge their decisions makes government work in a more consensual way. For the past fifty years the Swiss government has consisted of seven people drawn from the four main political parties, two each from the three larger parties, one from the smaller. They take in turns to be president for a year, which is why you don’t know who the Swiss president is, they’re not that important, even to the Swiss! There is no point in putting to much effort into party politics when the people can always have the last word, better for politicians to concentrate on making things work. It could be argued that this consensual approach lacks a radical input that can be valuable, but this is another advantage of having the commission, as it is a route that activists can use to put ideas forward that can shake things up a bit.
So, if I understand you correctly, the system you advocate allows citizens to determine their own level of participation within their society. Is it therefore the case that citizens could increase their level of participation in the running of society to such an extent that representative democracy becomes redundant? Is the system you advocate open to such radical social transformation?
It’s unlikely we would want that transformation as representative government becomes truly representative, and so people value it because it works, and respect those involved.
In your opinion making representative democracy redundant in your new system would be undesirable but what I was wondering is, is it possible to move towards a fully participatory system that eliminates professional politicians if people desire it? In principle is the system you advocate open to such transformation – unlike the existing system here in the UK?
I don’t suggest that it is undesirable, only that we probably wouldn’t want that, because I have seen how direct democracy can change a nation’s approach to politics. Experience in Switzerland shows that when power rests with the people then the importance of the ‘professional politician’ tends to disappear and representatives become genuinely representative, more modest, servants of the people. They are not driven by a desire for power because the bottom line is that their power is limited, real power lies with the people, and if you don’t do as your told you’re out of a job pretty quick. As a result it seems that most Swiss politicians are more like ‘people involved in politics’ rather than ‘politicians’, in fact to describe most Swiss politicians as ‘politicians’ is almost misleading. There are of course individual exceptions to this. It’s a struggle to find a hierarchy in Swiss government. The seven members of government take it in turns to be president for a year, and because they have no formal ‘Head of State’ visiting leaders are met by all seven members of the government. Posturing does not go down well and people tend to work in a more consensual way. I don’t normally let my opinions intrude into the campaign but to me that seems rather wonderful.
Any transformation can take place and if people don’t want professional politicians that is a choice they can make. There’s a lot of boring stuff in politics that can be left to an administration that is working under the supervision of the people. As the Swiss say, the routine stuff is left to the government, the more important matters to Parliament and the very important decisions to the people. The Swiss Parliament meets four times a year for three weeks at a time so they are not really professional politicians. That might not work in the UK but it’s an interesting option for the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, and possibly English regions. Full participation is a tricky one. Do most of us feel the need to be involved in every decision if things are running well? Is it just important to us is that if something is happening that we don’t like we can do something about it?
Regarding the Swiss system you say "the people can always have the last word" which "makes government work in a more consensual way". I’m interested to hear how, in your opinion, the implementation of such a system here in Britain would change the way our country is run? Consider for example recent campaigns like Make Poverty History, Stop the War or various environmental campaigns. At present, despite their popular support, campaigns such as these rarely achieve their objectives. If the Campaign for Democracy is successful how would things be different?
Environmental groups would be able to create legislation in the same way the ‘Alpine Initiative’ worked in Switzerland. There was a problem with the pollution caused by lorries crossing the Alps from Germany to Italy so the Swiss Alpine Cantons decided that they wanted all the transnational road traffic to go by rail so they proposed a law that required the government to build a new railway, and in the process the longest tunnel in Europe, to take the lorries off the road and put them onto railway wagons. The campaigners costed it out, planned it carefully, told the people which taxes would be raised to pay for it, won the referendum and the government is now building the railway. Any campaigning group would be free to put proposals forward that affected their area of interest. If they were sensible and workable they would win, although what would normally happen is that their proposals would be adopted by Parliament, as there is no point in a government opposing a referendum that is going to win.
That’s a very interesting example, but I want to push you a little bit more on the issue of consensual government. I want to ask you about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which as you will know where very unpopular with the general public. In your opinion, if we already had the system the Campaign for Democracy wants to bring into place, do you think we would still have gone to war? Or do you think that such unpopular foreign policy would be impossible to implement?
If I remember correctly, at the start the war was unpopular but supported by a majority and became more unpopular as time passed. Many believe the real problem was what happened afterwards, and the film ‘No end in sight’ covers this. As to whether or not our system would change that situation, I have no idea and I cannot see any answer being anything other than speculation. This is because our system is not a finished political system, it’s more a set of tools to accelerate the evolution of our political system. The system we advocate is not designed to deal with this situation, that would be Parliaments job. The referendum process is designed to be a slow deliberate process where signatures have to be collected over a period of eighteen months to make time for the process to be educational, it cannot be applied to a war situation.
The Campaign for Democracy focuses on the political system – but what about the economy? In capitalist democracies like Britain there is at least some democracy within the political sphere but there is zero democracy in the economic sphere – so why focus on the political sphere? How could the Campaign for Democracy address what, in his book The Captive State, George Monbiot calls "the corporate take-over of Britain"?
Whether or not we want democracy in the economic sphere, or to what extent we may want it, is something that needs to be discussed by society as a whole. There are others models we could adopt but what we do must be decided by the people of Britain. It is not for CfD to say what we should have, or get involved in that discussion.
Our focus is very narrow, and it will stay that way. We campaign for a real democracy and by doing that and no more we will be able to get support from the majority of people in this country. Principles unite, policy divides. We unite people behind the principle of democracy, and we don’t have any policy that will divide people. That position is the key to our success.
When New Labour were fighting their first election in 1997 they concentrated on principles, and journalists were complaining about the way they avoided discussing policy. Funny thing is, that idea, principles unite, policy divides was in the very first documents I produced around 1995/6!
We cannot expect politicians to work in our interests when they are largely dependent on donations from businesses for their survival, and on the banks for their overdrafts. He who pays the piper calls the tune. Sooner or later we are going to have to pay for politics ourselves. Once we are calling the tune that corporate take-over could be rolled back, if that is what people want.
It is not the job of the Campaign for Democracy to get involved the issues Monbiot discusses. Our job is to give those who have the understanding of various issues the tools to deal with problems, the tools being direct democracy and the reform process. The processes enable a re-balancing of power through a democratic process wherever there is a problem. Once we have put our system in place the campaign will be shut down, in the UK anyway.
I’ve asked you about the aims of the Campaign for Democracy and we have addressed some areas of concern regarding these aims. Now I would like to turn to the method by which the Campaign for Democracy hopes to bring about this new system. According to your web site "All we need to succeed is the support of 12,000 ordinary people, who have to promise to do………nothing." Forgive me, but for some people I suspect this might sound a little bizarre. Can you explain how you expect 12,000 people doing nothing to bring about the kind of change in the system that the Campaign for Democracy seeks?
The phrase ‘promise to do nothing’ is meant to sound bizarre. It’s designed to catch people’s attention on leaflets, banners and posters. Once we have their attention we can explain exactly what sort of nothing they have to do. To put the pressure on the parties we ask the floating voters to stay at home until one party meets our demand for an initiative and referendum process and a reform process, and then we ask the floaters to turn out and put that party into power. Some people might not want to vote for a particular party but would be happy to withhold a vote from the party they normally support. It doesn’t matter how it’s done, the pressure is still there. Ideally all parties will join up before the election so we don’t affect the outcome.
Once people have made their pledges, which they can do online, they don’t have to do anything else, just sit at home and watch the politicians flapping on TV! To put the pressure on the parties these people don’t have to go on marches, set up stalls, lobby Parliament or write letters.
It is a fascinating fact that out of the 44 million people registered to vote in Britain only 12,000 voters determine which party gets into power. These are the floating voters in the key margins and it is this tiny minority that the Campaign for Democracy wants to use to put pressure on the main parties to introduce your new system. Some critics might point out an inconsistency here. On the one hand your aims are pro-democracy whilst on the other hand your methods are anti- democratic. Surely, they might say, any move towards a more democratic system should have the backing of at least the majority of the voters! How would you answer such critics?
The nice thing about our system is that once it’s in place if people decide they don’t want it they can have a referendum on whether or not to go back to how things are now. All we give people is opportunity and choice. The day after the system comes into place nothing has changed. Parliament continues as before, until somebody comes up with a better idea and we vote for it.
So what exactly are you going to be doing between now and the next election? What can people who want to support the Campaign for Democracy do to help?
The campaign is in its very early stages. To grow it needs supporters, it needs other groups to encourage their supporters to help us, and it needs publicity. Journalists will write about it once we have some supporters, and once we have articles about us appearing in newspapers and magazines we will grow very, very quickly.
Now we have to get the first few hundred supporters. We need people, groups, to help us organise meetings where we can come along and tell them more about the campaign. It might involve hiring a local hall, we’ll help pay for it, or if it’s done by a local group we’ll help underwrite the cost. We will do as much of the publicity work as we can for you. Once people understand what we are doing and why, they don’t hesitate to join. When we have the first few hundred supporters well known individuals are likely to help, they already know about us, other organisations will invite us to their events, they already know about us, and it should snowball. The campaign captures the imagination of almost everybody we speak to, we just have to get out there and speak to lots of people. The campaign could be over very quickly with our Internet pledge system. The parties know about it, and they understand that with the deep and widespread dissatisfaction there is with the system we have, there is no point in opposing us. It could be over very quickly.
We are already in touch with many groups around Britain and invitations to talk at their meetings are now coming in, but we can’t have too many. So, get in touch with us and help us arrange talks for your groups.
Thank you Graham – I must say that perhaps for the first time in my life, thanks to the Campaign for Democracy, I am very much looking forward to the next general elections here in Britain.