When People’s Knowledge organised a citizens’ jury on the future of the UK food system in relation to Brexit six weeks ago, we had only one jury member, Danni, who backed Brexit. This was a “pop-up” jury, organised at short notice jointly with the Food Research Collaboration, and was not meant to in any sense representative. As it turned out, Danni spoke for a fair section of the UK electorate.
Danni (I’m not using their real name or gender) was one of several of the jurors who had been participants in previous participatory democracy processes in which I had been involved. I had got to know Danni quite well – the only member of the jury to come from the North East of England. Danni’s best friend travelled with them and sat through the jury process. Danni’s friend changed their mind during the day, as I suspect some other UK voters did during the four month EU referendum campaign as they heard more and more about the risks of Brexit. Danni however did not. They had worked in school kitchens and on a low wage all their life. “I’m voting Brexit because I do not trust the Government to act in my best interests or my family’s,” said Danni. While the arguments that Brexit is the last gasp of Empire, a sign of growing xenophobia or voter’s lack of education may carry weight, there can be no disputing that a sizeable chunk of UK society no longer believes in the system of representative Parliamentary democracy to the extent that it has just given it an almighty jolt.
If the Blair government had lived up to its rhetoric of rebuilding the relationship between the citizen and the state, which was a key part of their pitch at the 1997 general election, the UK’s far right and its fellow travellers would not have been given their opportunity. After an initial boom in the late 1990s and 2000s, participatory approaches lost their appeal, particularly among those wanting quick results. Ever since this time, those of us promoting participatory democracy and action research as a supplement to representative democracy have faced an uphill struggle. We are told by funders that it takes too long, doesn’t give quick results and has an impact that is hard to measure. After the last four months, and especially during the last eight days, I am inspired to be working at CAWR – one of the few places in the country where international and UK-based processes of participatory democracy and action research are valued. They are more important than ever.
There is an urgent need for us to think critically about why participatory approaches have not been valued by the cultural and political mainstream. On behalf of People’s Knowledge, based at CAWR, I invite you to join us in discussing these issues and collaborating in building political systems that work.
Tom Wakeford – in a personal capacity.