Participatory democracy in UK - Interview of Julie Ward, member of the European Parliament, in Brussels

Séances 2 et 3 du cours en ligne Démocratie Participative

Mihaela Similie, Pierre Bauby, October 2015

Centre National de la Fonction Publique Territoriale (CNFPT)

This interview addresses the question of participatory democracy in the United Kingdom, both current and future, as well as its impact on public services and political decisions. Examples are also described such as free schools and the « Big Society » program.

What is the current situation of participatory democracy in United Kingdom ?

Response of Julie Ward :

I think we have a crisis across Europe already, not just in particular countries. I think the ideas of politics and democracy hasn’t been discussed and made accessible to many people and also has an aura about it which, I think, prevents many people from participating. Many people think that politics is something that you have to go to university to study and it’s not. I mean politics is about everyday life.

But I certainly know that when people standing for elections, for example, I had no experience in politics before and I was surprised but yet you shouldn’t be surprised. Anyone of us could be that person, anyone of us could say ‘I feel strongly about this and I want to make a difference in any community and therefore I will put my name forward’ to be the spokesperson for that community. I mean you have to feel passionately from a particular position but also you have to know that you will have the trust of the people you represent to speak on their behalf. But I watch many people who don’t consider themselves to be politicians, have the attributes of a politician, of a good politician at least, when they care about something, about injustice, when they want to make improvements in their society.

So I think you see in civil society and at community level, I think you see a very good engagement and actually as you go to different levels of democratic structures that involve larger and larger institutions I think that it is less visible, it seems more labyrinthine and difficult for people to understand. But if we could begin to translate more of the community level decision-making models into those different models, into more governmental models, I think we would make some progress. And I am doing things here in Parliament trying to shake things up a bit from that perspective. We have some models back home but they are often not making the most important decisions. So at very grassroots levels people are given responsibility, power for decision making perhaps only over small local issues and not on really big issues; which actually we need to translate that community stakeholder engagement into these big macro decisions as well.

Can you present some experiences of participation that have changed political decisions or the organization of public services?

Response of Julie Ward :

We have certain community partnerships working at local authority level, where decisions are made about spending of some budget headings. It’s participatory budgeting and it’s a model from Brazil in fact, which works very very well in Bresil. Where I was living, in the North of England, where we start using the model of participatory budgeting, I have to say there were a lot of problems with it as well. Sometimes it is the same old same old organisations. What participatory budgeting should do is raising the range of organisations so it’s not the same old. I think, in principle, participatory budgeting is fantastic tool.

But I think the practice still needs to be worked on. And I think I seen both good and very poor examples of participatory budgeting so I wouldn’t say it’s yet a perfect tool. But in theory it should be, it should work really well. Maybe part of that is training, training people to come to the meetings, to engage to the process, to see that participation can change something. So I think it’s a kind of long game. I think we have to stay with it in order to see it would bear some fruit. Some negative examples I think it is important to give. It would be in the distribution of some funds locally whereby what you would have to want in your community is a wide range of different leisure activities for your people.

And I watched the participatory budgetary process where by about six groups who all did the same thing came and participated in a kind of dialogue and all wan money and actually some of other things, some of the minority activities, some of the activities for people with special needs for example, didn’t get funding. A I felt it is a great shame that some organisations that need more support to do things do not seem to have that popular and get funding.

But I also took part in that process to win some money for a project that was trying to address violence against women and girls and we want the money so I also had success as well. I think sometimes popular processes can the lowest common denominator so in that sense we wouldn’t necessarily always get quality projects. So I think that’s the issue for me, about how participatory budgeting is sometimes not a good tool. But I think it has to be. It is about how we make it a good tool and that has to come in the education of the community. So that communities themselves will see that six organisations are getting money for the same thing and special needs, disabled children do not getting any money, some how isn’t fair. So we have to educate, maybe they need to be more divisions between different budget headings in order to make that a better process.

What about the experience of « free schools » ?

Response of Julie Ward :

I believe in public education and I believe that local authorities are the best placed to make sure that we have equal opportunities for everybody and so I am not in favour of free schools. I find free schools very much driven by very aspirational educated middle class parents who want the best for their children and in that they race for the best for their children: they would move house, they put the price and the house prices grow up, just changes the whole community and then what you get is a school of very driven kind of aspirational stressed out clever children whose parents all have pretty good jobs and you don’t have that rich diversity of school population that actually is a better reflection of the society.

So I am not really for free schools. I think that I am a co-operator and I am actually a member of the Cooperative Party as well as the Labour Party. And the cooperative model of schools is quite interesting to look at. So I think for me the model of cooperative schools is worth looking at. The cooperative model is about fulfilling several principles of cooperation and they are certainly about having just society, equality and about reciprocity and mutuality. These are schools which in fact have stepped outside of the local authority model but they are taking on very good socialist models as far as I can see.

What is the impact of ‘Big Society’ program on participation ?

Response of Julie Ward :

David Cameron talked about something that have going on for years. Big society was always happening, I’ve been part of it for years and I took offence to a conservative government appropriating something I have been doing for decades. And Big society for me is about inclusion, and is about rewarding the people who put into the big society.

I think the conservative vision of Big society was really just a way of reducing investment in public services and what we are left with is – I could only see Big society working in rich places, in places where people have the money and maybe have retired and they have the pension and have plenty of money so they could afford to run the library because they do not to worry about the money they earn an the rent they have to pay.

But you can’t have that kind of Big society in a place where people don’t know where the next meal is coming from, or how they are going to pay their rent, or whether or not they will be in a job next week. Because the Big society requires a kind of stable baseline for people in community and more and more our communities don’t feel that, people are very anxious, they didn’t know if they can be in employment and I think this is a very big problem. But it’s also interesting to know that David Cameron doesn’t talk about Big Society anymore, he’s stop talking about it because his reform of Big Society it didn’t happened. Because the kind of Big Society that I was part of is still there and those people aren’t in it for some kind of Government award but because actually is part of our DNA, is how they operate as a community and my experience of working in the poorest communities of the UK was that those people have the most generosity.

Maybe they didn’t have the money to give but they gave their time, they would opened their doors for people, they would help you if you had a problem and is these communities now who are making citizens actions to support the refugees in Calais by bringing convoys of food, of clothing, of tenths of shelters, of books, of money, of solidarity to the people in Calais and is the poor community from my constituency in the North-West of England who is doing this. And I’m proud of that, these people are offering people who have nothing, they would still find something to give other people in trouble.

What are the prospects for participatory democracy in the future ?

Response of Julie Ward :

You know is happening. We have an extraordinary people movement in the UK, called the People Assembly and the People Assembly – its full title is the People Assembly against Austerity (here after AAA) – was set up precisely because the 99% felt it isn’t fair to pay for the mistake of 1% who is still getting rewards for being the bankers. And we bail the banks but we cannot look after the poorest and the society. So the People Assembly against Austerity has been a fantastic mass movement in the UK. It started often as a small movement, having meetings around the country and two week ends ago in Manchester we had 100.000 people I think on the street of Manchester on a demonstration because of the People against Austerity.

And it now has its like little chapters because there is a Women AAA, there is a Student AAA, there are Artists AAA, Teachers AAA, so all these chapter groups, and they operate in a very very local level so you can in your town become a member of that town’s AAA; but it’s linking together in a spirit of solidarity with other chapters and there is the overarching AAA which you can also be part of and these people are coming together with certain celebrity figures and big names as well but always is still a grassroots organisation and movement. And is growing, is strong, is powerful and I think it has helped citizens to feel empowered, is giving them hope, it is making them feel that they are not by themselves but they decided to take action.

So, the futur of particaption is on a bottom-up perspective ?

Response of Julie Ward :

Yes, it has to be bottom-up. I see part of what I need to do is to encourage other people who feel strong to do what I did, which is to make the next step. And the next step is to say will stand for this community. If you see in me a person who can represent you at a decision-making level, at a policy level, then perhaps you would stand too; and I play a very large role by home in trying to encourage other people to stand, particularly women and I’m really proud the are some Muslim women in the North-Ouest of England who now made the decision that they would like to stand for political offices at local level. And I meet with them and I support them, I give them advice and information and I tried to encourage them. I brought them here to the European Parliament to watch the work that I do here.

To see that actually, to be a political representative is not so far removed from your daily life. Because I think that if people can see what we do here and how we operate and how really what you have to do is to speak from the heart about the truth of what you know then they would have the confidence.

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