A false grail? Labour and the pursuit of democracy: The limits of Labour's experiments with deliberative democracy in Britain and Australia.

Author:Manwaring, Rob

In Britain and Australia, Labour is on the backfoot. Under Ed Miliband's leadership, British Labour tried to rebuild its policy agenda under the 'One Nation' label which simultaneously recognised but distanced itself from New Labour. In Australia, the fall of the Rudd-Gillard Governments (2007-2013) has led to further questioning about the Australian Labor Party's (ALP) identity crisis. At the state level in Australia, from a high-point in the mid-2000s when the ALP held office in every Australian state and territory, the sole Labor State government is now based in South Australia (1). In both countries, there is an ongoing debate about how Labour can adapt and renew in these post neo-liberal times.

In recent years, some proponents have argued that Labour should make democratic renewal a key theme in remaking Labour's identity. There is a view that democratic renewal, which at a general level is a noble aim in itself, should also be part of Labour's political programme for renewal and reinvention. The promise of democratic renewal is that, in a post-industrial economy, with looser class-based allegiances and greater reflexivity exercised by the public, it is central to a new social democratic settlement. Ed Miliband's 2014 speech to Labour Party conference touched upon such themes. In the wake of the Scottish Referendum, he argued:

I am proud of our devolution proposals. Reversing a century of centralisation in this country. We need to go further. We have to be led by the people not politicians. If the problem is Westminster we can't have a quick fix, a stitch up in Westminster. We've got to mobilise and harness the energy of people all across the country. That's why only a constitutional convention will do. And giving voice to everyone in Britain is also about who we are. Democratic renewal is a theme which Jeremy Corbyn, too, has picked up on as leader.

At the federal level in Australia, the ALP, at least rhetorically, is committed to democratic renewal. It is a theme which crops up in many of their recent party platforms. The 2007 platform (on which Kevin Rudd came to power), gives a clear articulation of this vision:

Labor will pursue new and innovative measures designed to foster greater participation and engagement of the Australian population in the political process. (ALP, 2007) It is timely then, to review and ask how far the search for democratic renewal should be part of the process of the centre-left's rebuilding. Labour in both Britain and Australia (and elsewhere) has been experimenting for a while now with forms of democratic renewal. This article takes stock of Labour's pursuit of democratic renewal, and ultimately suggests that it might be something of a 'false grail' for the reinvention of Labour politics.

Democratic renewal can take many forms, ranging from constitutional reform to attempts to introduce new mechanisms for citizen-input into policy making (Smith, 2005). Here, five cases of innovative consultation by Labour governments in Australia and Britain are critically examined. The cases are instructive because they give strong clues as to how, to date, the push for democratic renewal has evolved under Labour. As explored below, Labour's push for democratic innovation serves a number of wider political and policy goals; some which arguably take Labour further away from its traditional pursuit of forms of wider equality.

The search for democratic innovation

Since the 1980s, there has been a growing willingness by governments in Britain and Australia (and beyond) to introduce new mechanisms for consultation and civic engagement (Pratchett, 1999; Barnes et al., 2003; Barnes, Newman & Sullivan, 2007; Head, 2007; McCann, 2012; Stewart, 2009). These have taken a range of forms, including citizen panels, citizen juries, deliberative polls, and 'visioning' events. We can identify four main drivers for this push to democratic renewal. First, there are structural changes in patterns of political participation, and especially concerns about declining party and trade-union membership, and declining voter turnout in the UK (Hay, 2007; Sawer and Zappala, 2001, 290). Second, the deliberative 'turn' in democratic theory, often linked to work of John Dryzek, James Fishkin, and others (see Elstub, 2008). Third, the influence of the New Public Management in both countries, and attempts to introduce consumer mechanisms into the British and Australian public services (see Pratchett, 1999; Bevir & Rhodes, 2003; Stewart, 2010). Fourth, we might also add the advent of new technologies and the promise of the internet in both offering new forms of engagement and facilitating a shift towards 'e-democracy' (Chadwick, 2006, 83-4).

In response, Labour in both Australia and Britain has shown some willingness to pursue a democratic renewal agenda. During the era of New Labour, the dominance of the ALP at the state level in the mid-2000s, and the first Federal Rudd government in Australia (2007-2010); there was an appetite to experiment with democratic innovation (ALP, 2007; Labour Party, 1997, 2001, 2010). This agenda also found expression in the reforms made to the respective public services in both countries, which placed an emphasis on finding new mechanisms for citizens to input into policy-making (Cabinet Office, 1999; DPMC, 2010). In the heyday of the 'third way' debates, there was a clear clarion call by Anthony Giddens (and others) for a 'second wave of democracy' or 'the democratising of democracy' (Giddens, 2000, 61; Bentley and Halpern, 2005; Gallop, 2007; Latham, 2001). Blair (1998) called it 'strengthening the democratic impulse'. A number of writers have noted these efforts at democratic innovation, and in different respects found them wanting (e.g. Driver and Martell, 2002; Bevir, 2010; Fitzpatrick, 2003; Mouffe, 2000; Marsh and Miller, 2012). This paper extends this debate, by taking five cases where Labour in Britain and Australia has sought to innovate and find new ways of enriching the relationship between state and civil society. The cases considered here are New Labour's 'People's Panel' (1997-2001), and its 'Big Conversation' (2003-05). The Australian cases are the then Labor Victorian Government's 'Growing Victoria Together' (GVT) process (initiated in 1999), and the South Australian (SA) Labor government's 2006 consultation on its strategic plan (SASP). The final case is the Rudd government's 2020 Summit (2). For the sake of brevity, the cases are not outlined in full here. Whilst these cases do not fully capture the scope of Labour's efforts to institute democratic renewal, they do offer insights into how this agenda has unfolded and what it might mean for the renewal of Labour. What is distinctive about the cases is that they clearly show Labour seeking to move beyond traditional forms of engagement and finding new ways to enhance public and stake-holder participation. In some cases they are claimed as the largest consultation to have ever taken place within the polity (e.g. The Big Conversation, or the SA case). In other cases, the focus is on innovation. The People's Panel was a world-first--the first time a national government ran a citizens' panel of 5000 people to track opinion on its public sector reform agenda. The Big Conversation was an attempt to initiate a nation-wide debate about the future of the country and to canvass ideas and support for its 2005 election manifesto.

During much of the period of New Labour, the ALP was resurgent at the state level in Australia (Wanna and Williams, 2005). During this time, many Labor governments developed a...

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