That the Grenfell Tower disaster was a profound human tragedy is beyond dispute. Likewise, by general consent, the response of the non-emergency authorities was far from acceptable. A remote and out-of-touch local council which suppressed opposition by disregarding it or actively mocking the attempt of representatives to challenge decisions. An inability to fully grasp the enormity of the problem and slapping away offers of help was mirrored by a central Government slow to react and seemingly incapable of displaying any understanding for the plight of homeless and bereaved citizens.
Now that a period of reflection is setting in, many officials are still in denial, repeating the mantra that we need to wait for a full inquiry before we know the cause of the blaze. Within a narrow remit of the local conditions in Kensington and wider building regulations there is some sense in this, but you cannot escape the feeling that the aim is to delay and hope that by the time an inquiry reports back someone else will be in charge.
Representative democracy alone is failing us.
In an earlier post I pointed out that we need a complete rethink of rights and resources which can be wielded by citizens and civil organisations. But the possibility of such a review was immediately cast into doubt by the actions of Theresa May. A few days after the disaster and clearly feeling the weight of public anger and resentment she agreed to meet with representatives of the victims. But where was the meeting held? In the privacy of Downing Street, which presumably left May in her comfort zone but must have been at least a little daunting to the representatives. So why not at a neutral venue? There is no doubt that neighbouring local authorities would have been willing to have hosted such a meeting at short notice given the enormity of the disaster. But I think there is something deeper at work here than just another example of the lack of insensitivity to citizens by the Prime Minister. It displays a fundamental fear by politicians of losing power or control; an inability to share authority where it really matters most.
At the meeting which lasted 2½ hours, Theresa May reportedly ‘welled up with emotion’ at the tales of loss and survival. But a telling statement was made by the Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin who attended the meeting. He believed that residents left the meeting feeling
..reassured that they were listened to . Time will tell as to whether it makes a difference.
We wait to see what action will come from it, but they were reassured that they were listened to.
The feeling of alienation and powerlessness is so widespread as to be endemic to society. It is likely that a substantial part of the vote to leave the EU was a result of this alienation. So what has gone wrong and what can we do about it? The feeling that representative democracy is flawed and unable to respond properly to keep track of citizen needs and interests is not new. In a 2008 article titled Empowered Participation for the UK, Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright pointed to three ways representative democracy is failing.
- The display of sound public judgement. Fung and Wright say:
When popular mandates that grow out of elections are rooted in fickle and likely erroneous public opinions, the officials who follow those mandates risk making unjust or unwise decisions.
As an example, consider the huge political battle being fought in the Government over the public sector pay cap!
- The tyranny of minorities. Fung and Wright point out:
Private corporations, for example, often control public regulations that affect them at the expense of consumers and the general public.
The persistence of austerity pursued by a Government elected on a minority vote and sustained in power by a deal with a monitory party is clear!
- Finally, government incapacity. Again Fung and Wright:
By itself government often simply lacks the knowledge, ideas, resources or energy needed to address many complex social problems effectively.
This was starkly revealed by the way the local community around Grenfell Tower responded reflexively to the situation. That is surely a vital lesson to be learned.
Participatory Democracy: More Than a Theory
To a greater or lesser extent all three of these factors could be seen operating prior to the Grenfell Tower disaster. But is supplementing representative democracy with a so-called participatory democracy where citizens play a much more active role simply an academic exercise? Far from it and the problem, along with an initial attempt at a solution, was actually outlined by Gordon Brown in 2007. Unlikely as it seems for a Prime Minister anecdotallly associated with tales of control freakery, he appeared to be proposing the biggest advance in British democracy since 1945. Along with a paper and proposals for complete reform of the Royal Prerogative, (The Governance of Britain) Brown identified that a ‘new type of of politics’ was urgently required which he outlined in this speech. In it he proposed setting up Citizen Juries with the power to suggest policy and contest decisions at the local and national level. The plan was not particularly ambitions but it shows that the problem was identified in the political arena and there was the possibility of change. Brown claimed:
Citizens juries will help government shape the policies in ways that the people for whom they are created want. Direct citizen involvement in policy-making can be the ally rather than the enemy of a renewed representative democracy.
There are other examples of participatory democracy being tried around the world and it is possible that Brown’s citizens juries would need much greater powers than he would be prepared to sanction to be effective. But we will never know as the devastating financial crisis hit soon afterward and the programme was sidelined
Maybe if the citizens juries had the power to contest and change policy Grenfell would never have happened. We cannot know for sure. The financial crash effectively enabled the establishment to reassert with a vengeance a top down form of control, largely by the use of scare tactics and ‘saving banking corporations’. But whether it is Theresa May, the leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council or public bodies such as Police, Fire etc it is imperative that such ideas are tried. Post facto tears offer little comfort and is no substitute for the acton needed to protect peoples lives and wellbeing. Genuine participatory democracy means giving up some control and power. It means leaving Downing Street, going to where they live and giving them some power!