The state of independents: alternative politics

Simon Barrow


Since 2002, Ekklesia has been arguing that a key element of political and democratic renewal in Britain hinges on the encouragement of independent, citizen-based and associational politics as a counter-weight to the hegemony of top-down party elites, and as a challenge to a parliamentary and voting system badly in need of reform. This paper examines these ideas in theory and in practice. It offers Q&A responses to the criticisms that have been made about non-party candidates and 'alternative politics' in the context of the scandal over MPs' expenses and calls for change. The paper situates 'the rise of independents' in a wider context of 'politics as the people's work'. Finally it offers fresh perspectives on the relation of religion to politics and the creative role the churches can play in renewing democracy - after the 'power games' of Christendom. It includes substantial references and resources.


Since 2002, Ekklesia has been arguing that a key element of political and democratic renewal in Britain hinges on the encouragement of independent, citizen-based and associational politics as a counter-weight to the hegemony of top-down party elites and as a challenge to a parliamentary and voting system badly in need of reform. [1]

On 22 May 2009, an opinion survey conducted by ComRes [2] and commissioned by Ekklesia [3] confirmed that, substantially in response to deep concerns about the questionable behaviour of elected parliamentarians, a large proportion of the public now feels that independent candidates in future elections could have a significant role to play in bringing about a change of political culture and performance. [4]

The immediate data is intriguing. Seventy-eight per cent say independents should stand where MPs have behaved ‘unethically’; 63 per cent believe British democracy would be strengthened if there were more independent MPs and 53 per cent say they would ‘seriously consider’ voting for an independent candidate at the next UK general election. [5]

Here our aim is to probe behind the headline figures in order to look at the broader canvas for a more people-driven form of politics and then to respond to some of the criticisms of ‘independents’ highlighted in the media.

The first part of this paper is therefore more descriptive and analytical, outlining the roots and routes of ‘alternative politics’.

The second part is in a ‘Question and Answer’ format focused on immediate issues arising from the media and political debate about ‘a new politics’ in the wake of the May 2009 parliamentary expenses’ scandal.

The third part makes some suggestions as to how those of Christian convictions might play a positive role in helping to reconstruct participative and representative democracy, without either burying their particular perspectives within a purely secular agenda, or seeking somehow to ‘control’ or ‘dominate’ the shared, open terrain that all civic groups can benefit from (including the churches). [6]



Some definitions and examples

Terms like ‘independent politics’, ‘associationalism’ and ‘citizens action’ have often been thrown around in a rather loose way. We need a clearer idea of what we are talking about. In mapping the clusters of concerns and the protagonists that may be gathered around these terms, Ekklesia is not trying to endorse everything that happens under these labels, but seeks to support the energetic discourse and fresh practical possibilities they may help to generate.

By ‘independents’, we mean people with civic and community concerns operating outside the dominant party system and standing for election on local manifestos or particular platforms for change. Those who claim media attention are more likely to be long-standing operators or ‘celebrities’, but this by no means exhausts or defines what is, or could be on offer in terms of independent politics. There are also attempts at encouraging (rather than artificially coalescing) the ‘independent’ trajectory through initiatives like the Jury Team. This network was launched in mid-March 2009, “for those people who believe in democracy, but who have observed how the current party political system has turned the United Kingdom's Parliament and Government into the creatures of a small and increasingly distant group of oligarchical politicians.” [7]

By ‘citizen-based politics’, we mean participatory political action linked into the needs of neighbourhoods and connecting, for example, to social and ecological concerns. This includes (without being restricted to) grassroots campaigns ranging from defence of Post Offices and advocacy for community schools, right through to lobbying on green priorities and action to combat global poverty. It involves everything from Broad-Based Community Organising (BBO) [8] to the diverse work of NGOs and voluntary groups. Among the meta-networks concerned with non-partisan citizens’ lobbying and organizing, has been Common Cause, which seeks to promote “open, honest and accountable government.” [9]

By ‘associational politics’ we mean forms of political deliberation and cooperation which cross, transcend or re-define traditional party loyalties. Such associations would build instead on communities of interest, concern and geography which also challenge the physical and legal ‘boundaries’ established by the current representative political system and which can embody localised forms of ‘global awareness’. This was the kind of territory that the New Politics Network [10] was seeking to explore from a consciously radical perspective in the mid 1990s, along with synergistic processes of consensus and campaign building. The recent Convention on Modern Liberty (February 2009) [11] also began to build an incredibly diverse platform for civil liberties [12], comprising those across, within and outside the established political spectrum. One of its creators, OpenDemocracy [13], is a web-based crucible for ideas and action which seeks to develop progressive agendas that both build on and transcend what is coming out of mainstream policy debate.

Groups specifically concerned with transforming the political and constitutional system, such as Charter 88 [14] and its successor Unlock Democracy [15], have partly emerged from and overlapped into, these spheres. They have done so in their efforts to promote policies around electoral reform, open government, civil rights and a range of other issues. We see these concerns as integrally linked to the wider agenda of change into which independents, citizens' action and associational politics can also be understood.

The historical roots of alternative politics

Traditions of people-based political mobilisation have a long and varied history. It is important to realise this, because the reactive and memory-deficient nature of much media-fuelled ‘public debate’ in Britain often assumes that such ideas can be assessed, dismissed or by-passed in an instant. Alternatively, it accuses them of being trendy, superficial and ephemeral. All human activity is fallible but the idea that alternative politics must automatically be doomed is little more than pessimism masquerading as realism. As Leonard Cohen once put it: “Everything has a crack in it. That’s how the light gets in.”

‘Independents’ of various shades have been a small but persistent feature of British political life going right back to 1945. In local politics, non-party candidates and councils were edged out by the ideologically driven confrontations of the 1980s. Time was called on them because they could not compete with increasingly professionalised and highly funded party machines. They also lost ground through having become part of the establishment and too much the preserve of principally bourgeois interests.

Then the tradition was revived by dissidents in the larger parties. In Scotland, Margot Macdonald MSP started off as a stalwart of the old-style SNP [16] Notable individuals seized particular moments – such as former BBC correspondent Martin Bell in Tatton (responding to an earlier corruption scandal in 1997) and Richard Taylor, the GP who in 2001 won (and in 2005 retained) Wyre Forest / Kidderminster on an independent ticket defending the National Health Service and responding to other local concerns. [17] Taylor was the first independent MP to retain a seat in the House of Commons in a second election since Frank Maguire in 1979.

Significantly, all three have been seen as good constituency MPs and effective parliamentary operators in spite of the limitations of a system set up to respond to parties and whips rather than to individuals and small groupings.

In their modern guise independents are, in a sense, a by-product of the dominant party system and have sometimes shared its limitations in unintended ways – by being tamed or domesticated through deals with corporate interests at local and regional level, for example. But the potential for a more creatively subversive and ambitious ‘state of independents’ within ‘the State we’re in’ [18] is now much more likely and is something which Ekklesia, alongside others, is committed to exploring and investing in. At the least, one can say that there is a ‘window of opportunity’, if people are willing and speedy enough to capitalise on it. [19]

Meanwhile, ‘citizen-based’ politics mushroomed in Britain with the expansion of civil society in the post-war years, particularly in the 1960s when impulses for change (anti-racism, feminism, gay rights and others) created what came to be known as the ‘new social movements’ challenging the hegemony of ‘politics as usual’. (Highly relevant to this is the discourse around 'radical democracy' initiated in the 1990s by political theorist Chantal Mouffe, now continuing her research at the University of Westminster.) [20]

Citizens’ action was also premised on the growing political zone which emerged between households and neighbourhoods on the one hand and the claims of markets and the state (both local and national) on the other. In its radical form, popular politics developed and cohered around a high-impact approach to ‘community organising’ pioneered by Saul Alinsky in the USA. [21] This movement has also influenced a variety of groups in Britain, as well as schooling ‘traditional’ political figures like Barack Hussein Obama in the USA who have subsequently broken into the so-called mainstream. [22]

‘Associationalism’ (sometimes called ‘associative democracy’ - the term used by Paul Hirst and others) is undoubtedly the least known of the labels used in this paper. Rarely heard outside the sometimes rarefied atmosphere of political journals and discussion forums, it has been defined formally as the idea that “human welfare and liberty are both best served when as many of the affairs of a society as possible are managed by voluntary and democratically self-governing associations.” [23] In modern times, it has acquired a more relational, less overtly ‘communitarian’ content. [24]

Associative democracy is a term and an idea owing its origins to French thinkers such as de Tocqueville, Proudhon and Durkheim, and to English pluralists like GDH Cole, Harold Laski and (crucially) John Neville Figgis (1866 - 1919) [25] and Paul Hirst (1947-2003). It also acquired a distinctive American flavour through people such as US ‘social gospel’ pioneer Walter Raushenbusch. [26]

In Britain, associationalism has deep roots in early 20th century Anglican social thought – and it is what lies behind Rowan Williams’ critique of the ‘market state’ (in his 2002 Richard Dimbleby Lecture) [27] and his conviction that the social and political order should make space for civil associations from a variety of backgrounds, including religious ones. It still opens up many avenues and fresh perspectives on people-based politics but in its historic Christian undertones, it also needs to be set free from the shadows of a ‘Christendom’ political settlement [28] which too readily associates civic governing authority with institutional church interests. (This is an issue to which we return in the third section).

Mapping new practical possibilities

What each of these overlapping approaches to alternative politics share, in many but not all of their manifestations, is a determination to work from the ground-up rather than the top-down and a commitment to ‘politics as the people’s work’ rather than as a bureaucratised and professionalized activity restricted to a paid class of persons set apart from the rest of us. Such groupings have effectively decided the shape and limits of our involvement in deciding how power is used, by whom, and accountable to whom.

‘Alternative politics’ in the three modes we have described, both fuels and draws upon a vision of democracy as an arena of participation as well as representation, of cooperation as well as competition. It is about the possibility of the artful as much as the art of the possible.

Politics reconceived in terms of independence from machine politics, in terms of civic action and in terms of association beyond tribal loyalties, requires greater change within the overarching political and parliamentary system that has evolved within Britain’s long but often inchoate democratic settlement. Otherwise its sustainability is in question, at least in terms of democratizing the state and extending the suasion of civics in the political realm.

These wider reforms would certainly include:

• Proportional Representation.
• A constitutional settlement which moves people from being subjects to being citizens.
• Greater Freedom of Information (FOI)
• Transparency and accountability in parliament (not least in payments and in corporate lobbying).
• An end to ‘second jobs’ for elected representatives.
• An elected second chamber.
• Further reform of the age of voting.
• Local and national citizens’ assemblies.
• ‘Recalls’ and other means of maintaining accountability between elections.
• Fixed term parliaments,
• Reform of parliamentary process and protocol to enable the participation of those outside the current governing elites.
• More free parliamentary votes and greater restraints on the party whips.

The Citizens Convention (Accountability and Ethics) Bill promoted by Unlock Democracy and a cross-party group of MPs as Early Day Motion 1573, is one positive, practical step forward.

Our focus in the next section, however, is on the role that non-party protoganists can play, as part of a challenge to the inertia, introversion and exclusiveness of current political institutions and procedures in Britain.

‘Independents’ do not arise or take on their different agendas and roles in a vacuum. Nor can they be judged ‘good’ or ‘bad’ en masse (as some recent political commentary seems to suppose). Our argument is that the health of our whole political culture is enhanced and strengthened by the presence and development of non-party actors, alongside parties and civic associations large and small. But to acknowledge this is not to pre-judge the question as to whether particular independent candidates are justified or not in what they stand for and in how they operate.



Strengths and weaknesses of ‘independent politics’

It is usually easier to destroy than to construct. In terms of media commentary and spin doctoring, the destructive impulse comes in the form of ‘dissing’ or ‘rubbishing’. If you can taint a development which might threaten your vested interests with an image of oddness or un-realism, then you save yourself the bother of having to re-think your own project too deeply, or to take a critique of the system which benefits you (and those who might give the critique political traction) on anything more than an advisory capacity. Where dismissal will not work, co-option or faint praise may also be tried.

The reactions which have poured forth in May and June 2009 regarding ‘the rise of the independents’ in the light of the MPs' expense scandal has gone through three predictable phases, all of which correspond to the ‘news cycle’. First enthusiasm and a certain degree of hype, then pro-ing and con-ing and finally ‘the backlash’. The latter has included a rebuttal of the ‘independent trajectory’ from Andrew Rawnsley [29] – an informed and acute commentator whose recent Observer columns have offered prescient analysis - but who also shares an interest in maintaining the fabric of a system that has served his profession well. It has also included the mocking assessment by Alexander Chancellor [30] of “the likes of” Martin Bell as “a goody-goody”, and independent interlopers as liable to be the kind of passing celebrity fad which is “the last thing we need” when the real issue is reforming the system. Here, commonplace dismissal is wrapped up in a certain fashionable type of jaded cynicism from the ‘world-weary hack’.

These and other commentators have valid questions to raise, but they are also in danger of by-passing the 'positives' and ending up with a picture which starts from the premise that no matter how bad things are now, the resources for getting back on track still reside primarily within the existing system, allegedly for pragmatic reasons. Others, including Ekklesia, believe that a more radical diagnosis and a more hopeful, paradigm-shifting response is needed.

Here are the main questions and challenges the nay-sayers to the growth and utility of independent politics raise, and some reflections on their in/adequacy:

1. Independents are often mavericks and inexperienced do-gooders.

Some would respond that many people involved in local political parties are also mavericks and inexperienced do-gooders! There will always be some like this but the facts make it clear that there are also some excellent independents. The idea of “primaries” introduced by the Jury Team [31], also means that communities can select which independent it thinks should stand. Therefore those whom a community or neighbourhood considers to be unreliable would be less likely to stand in elections. Individuals can and should, remain free to test themselves at the bar of voter opinion. Political parties, however, are more concerned about loyalty to their own interests and often define as ‘mavericks’ purposeful, angular, skilful people who might ‘rock the boat’. The ‘group think’ [32] mentality and a culture of tribalism is designed to smooth the edges off any politics which might disturb the consensus (or, beneath the surface conformity, the lack of it) and it is therefore in danger of producing what has been called ‘institutional truth’ [33].

2. Independents are not properly accountable.

Independents may turn out to be, in some respects, more publicly accountable than party politicians. Election after election has seen a few hundred people (and sometimes fewer) in a local political party select the candidates to stand in the General Election. These candidates are often in safe seats where there is little accountability. Independents, however, depend upon their local reputations and cannot rely mainly on party votes or national swings. This creates a different and countervailing set of pressures and possibilities. The idea of ‘community forums’, developed from civic associations, begins a move towards practical mechanisms for giving rise to, and holding non-party candidates accountable to, a wider good. [34]

3. Independents are ineffective within parliamentary and council settings because they have no power base.

Party MPs rarely rebel against their parties' programmes, which many would say makes them compliant and ineffective. Those without a party are much freer to represent their constituents’ concerns – or like Richard Taylor MP, to take up wide public concerns about something like the health service. They may also be better placed to form or participate in cross-party coalitions, which can be the key to getting things done in Parliament and at the local council level.

4. Independents tend to be single-issue focused.

Some may be elected due in large part to a local issue on which they have campaigned. But often this will have been a concern of local constituents which party politicians have neglected. Once in Parliament, however, independents will deal with a range of issues just like any other MP. They may also be appointed to Select Committees which relate to the issue on which they have expertise and so their focus may bring something extremely valuable (and additional) to Parliament. This is in marked contrast to some Select Committee appointments of party political MPs who may find themselves on committees due to party loyalty rather than any specialist knowledge. [35]

5. Independents are ‘all over the shop’ politically

The narrow party agendas into which candidates are squeezed can be artificial and have little bearing on a politics that has, in certain respects, left the ideological struggles of the 1970s and 1980s behind. Why should every member of a political party have exactly the same position on drugs, transport, climate change, Europe and immigration? Independents are far freer to be honest and make realistic decisions, rather than be pushed in many votes by a party whip. [36]

6. Voting for independents or moving to PR may upset the main parties and let in extreme groups like the BNP

The British National Party, which trades on racism and xenophobia, feeds upon the corruption and inadequacy of the current political system. It is also is fed by the hostile environment towards ‘foreigners’ engendered by the so-called mainstream parties’ perpetuation (for instance) of an agenda on migration constructed around tabloid-style fear and prejudice. [37] Voting to support such a system and its principal defenders is not a good way of combating such extremism in the long run. Viable alternatives are needed. The BNP get in, or get a sizeable (but fortunately still small) share of the vote because people vote for them. Voting tactically to keep racists out may be an important short-term measure, combined with re-orienting politics to deal with the exclusions and disaffections upon which they try to capitalise. But allowing the far right or other extreme groups to deny genuine political choice is to allow them to win in a different way. Under a proportional voting system, only dissuading people from voting BNP will work. All this emphasises that racist and extreme parties can only be countered by political persuasion and healthy politics. Simply maintaining an unfair status quo because you think any ‘cracks’ might let them in is a counter-productive approach. [38] It is also worth noting that the success of the BNP in the 2009 Euro-poll North-West England could have been thwarted by just 5,000 more votes for the Green Party.

7. The last thing we need is more attention grabbing celebrities in politics.

Independents are, in the main, not celebrities. On the contrary, there are those like the former anti-apartheid activist from South Africa who is standing for election in Dublin in order to challenge the ‘mainstream’ parties to take action against growing waves of racism, following the sectarianism that has marked divisions over the North. Or people from public life like Terry Waite (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9578) who wish to argue a serious case for change in the face of political decay. This is a way of getting people to take seriously what ‘politics as usual’ wishes to push under the carpet. [39]

8. The thirst for independents is a protest with little substance or future.

It may be a protest, or start out as one, but at the same time be a sign of hope that people care about their political system and want to be engaged. Protest has been the crucible for most of the important political and social changes of the last century and a half, going back to the landmark Representation of the People Act 1832. [40] Independent and alternative politics is about much more than engaging in the kind of ‘direct democracy’ used and abused in the USA as ‘propositions’ attached to ballot papers.

9. Independent politics is really anti-politics. It is demoralising people.

Independent, civic and associational politics is about making politics accessible to ordinary people. It is about enhancing participation and representation. Ironically, it is the mainstream parties who have increasingly abandoned politics for business management. The idea that ‘real politics’ is what is done for or to us rather than by us is patronising and partial. It is also what alienates people from politics! Politics is not exclusively or primarily about parties, though no-one is arguing that they do not play a significant role. It is about how power is used and made accountable. People are politically de-motivated and demoralised by a system and parties which are resistant to their needs, concerns and input. The evidence (in terms of local action as well as polling) is that people are re-engaged when this changes. The advocates of the interests of the party machines are desperate to convince those who might defect from them that disillusion equals a dangerous rejection of politics. But it is not (and does not have to be) this way.

10. Many independents are really conservatives (with a small or large ‘c’) in disguise, as they were during their local government heyday.

This is clearly not the case with Margot MacDonald in Scotland or with Richard Taylor in England. It is possible and desirable for non-party candidates and activists from different political ‘spaces’ to participate. Another contrary example is Clare Short MP in Birmingham Ladywood. She was a Labour minister but is now an independent, having fallen out with the party and the government over the Iraq war. Greater political diversity is needed to reflect the true diversity of the populace. Also, people can and do change their minds. It may have been the case that at certain junctures in the past, independents came largely from the conservative wing of politics but there is no law that says this has to be the case. The left has tended to have a very strong attachment to the party form, partly as an outworking of some of its ideology but this again is not set in stone. And there are numerous examples of people from the left and the centre of politics who have rebelled in independent ways.

11. Only the relatively prosperous and educated can afford to run as independents – the whole thing is biased toward the middle class and the already enfranchised.

There seems little evidence for this. Are those who make these claims willing to invest in something different, or are they actually wanting to keep politics as a middle class preserve? The long history of working-class involvement in politics, both through the labour movement and through civic association as well as through parties, suggests that something different is possible. Rather than funding parties, what about a small fund for supporting independents in restricted circumstances? There is clear evidence that significant proportions of existing MPs are public school and Oxbridge educated, or otherwise privileged.

12. A whole parliament of independents would make Britain ungovernable

Independents cannot form a government. This is true. A similar charge has been levelled at the Liberal Democrats and minority parties but this does not mean either that they cannot be elected or that they cannot be good MPs who enrich the democratic process. There is a model in the cross-benchers in the House of Lords, where non-party members are allocated parliamentary time as a group. They have a convener rather than a whip, support one another where they agree and divide up parliamentary time between them. The idea behind this accusation seems to be either that supporting more independents means wanting to do away with parties (it does not; we do not have to indulge a zero-sum game), or that it is somehow likely that independents would quickly become a majority. This is unlikely at the moment but if the public started to elect different kinds of people, then the system would need to adapt. Democratic institutions are there to facilitate democratic participation and representation, not to keep those who currently hold the reins of power in position whatever people say or want.

13. We don’t need ‘do-gooders’ getting elected to parliament.

The idea that only those motivated by money, status or position can be really trusted (because “at least you know what they’re in it for”), whereas those who want to pursue a notion of public good, non-corruption or the needs of particular groups of people (such as those reliant on the health service, carers, older people, etc.) are virtually automatically “self-righteous” and “irritating” – as some critics have suggested – moves cynicism beyond a rightful suspicion of power interests (which is what it used to mean) to a generally corrosive disdain for anyone we fear may expose our own comparative failings. The issue of how to discern what is ‘good’ in persons and in public life has become more and more difficult with the breakdown of a broader consensus about beliefs and values. Those who want to reinstate a discussion about this by putting their principles on the line are surely to be welcomed, even if we then question what it is they offer and propose.

14. Parties and political ideologies have their faults but we cannot do without them.

Political blocs and political non-blocs offer diversity but not when a monopoly or duopoly goes unchallenged. Likewise, principles are important but ideology often hardens them into dogma. Besides, the party system has now largely abandoned the principles that once defined it and the ruling parties have almost become modified versions of a dominant neo-liberal economic ideology. Breaks in the dominant order are necessary for the re-introduction of genuine choice. It is true that alliances will always be made but the question is, what kind of alliances? It is unrealistic to have a system (which we have at the moment)in which hundreds of candidates contest an election on the same manifesto with which they all agree. The reality is that these candidates disagree with one another beneath the veneer. The present system is monolithic because it is biased towards maintaining what is in effect a two-party system in the UK parliament. Beyond Westminster, politics and parties are becoming more flexible and diverse. That ought to be strength, not a weakness.

15. Independents feed a cynicism about professional politicians which further widens the gaps between governors and governed.

Actually, they seem to provide many with a source of hope in the face of decay and despair, as Ekklesia’s ComRes opinion poll indicated. Disillusionment is fed by ‘business as usual’ or by a lack of genuine opportunities for involvement. Alternative politics can help to rectify these problems. A large number of people do not have a party affiliation or strong association and feel disconnected from 'party politics'. If they are to be re-engaged in public life, it may take people from outside 'the system' to do so.



How churches can be part of the solution

Before going on to look at what role the churches may play in renewing both democratic culture and their own structures and practices for participation, it is necessary to clear some ground about ‘religion and politics’ since the connections and distinctions between these two are so widely misconstrued, both by those who want to merge one into the other and by those who want to exclude religion altogether. [41]

Ekklesia argues that both these extremes are undesirable, because they are ‘totalising’. They seem to suggest that those who are not like us must be made like us or shut out. Equally, we believe that these extremes are unnecessary, because there is a different way forward which can be embraced by all who favour openness and fairness, whether they are ‘religious’ or not. [42]

The real question of ‘religion and politics’ is not how they can be totally separated (as if religion was not a social and structural phenomenon with an inevitable presence in the public arena, or as if political participation could possibly require people to leave their convictions outside the polling booth and the community forum). Rather, it is a question of what kind of religion related in what kind of way to what kind of political process. Exclusionary politics and self-interested, dominating religion are bad for people. They distort, marginalise and de-motivate. [43]

Ekklesia has long argued that the ‘Christendom settlement’- by which institutional religion secured its temporal power through offering to bless the status quo in exchange for favours and privileges - is bad for all concerned. It is a corruption of the Christian message. [44] Christians above all should be able to recognise that, as in the case of the trial and execution of their founder, the collusion of religion and state may be corrosive and ultimately death-dealing. So Christian political engagement needs to be of a different kind to the confusion or collusion of religious institutions with top-down political systems, even in the attenuated forms we experience those institutions and systems in Britain today. [45]

In short: religion can take oppressive forms but it can and does also taking liberating forms. Think of the involvement of people like Desmond Tutu in broad mobilisations for justice and the orientation of the church to those pushed to the margins – the place in which it started. Ekklesia is a Christian-based think-tank and believes strongly that the challenge for Christians is to find a new way of engaging with people and with power which will change the rules of the game – from self-interest to concern for our neighbours; from organised hatred to enemy-loving; from punitive to restorative action; from trying to ‘be in control’ of others to seeking the invitation of persuasive example, and so on. [46]

Engaging the benefits and limits of democracy

A healthy democratic system – one that is open to change, criticism, renewal and a wide base of participation and decision-making – is positive for all of us. Of course, it will not resolve our differences nor will it alone produce the change of hearts, minds and lives which Christians (and others) argue is what real transformation in the public and inter-personal realm requires. Something more is needed for that. But it does give us a framework in which to ‘do business’. [47]

Christian hope and commitment points towards the creation of public places where political competition is displaced by neighbourly affection, based on the voluntary but deeply-rooted commitments of ‘communities of principle’ (ekklesia). It takes particular traditions to make this possible. [48] But in the meantime, general fair representation and involvement - while falling well short of a value-based consensus - remains far better than the alternative: the domination of public life by those with power, wealth, privilege or a monopoly over the means of force and violence. In these terms, the political means to sustain the demos can be seen creatively as what Bonhoeffer calls ‘mandates of preservation’, and ‘penultimate goods’, rather than ends in themselves. [49]

This means two things. Firstly, Christians can and should make a positive contribution to broader democratic culture as a means of enabling us (whoever ‘we’ are) to deal with each other seriously, respectfully and peaceably. [50] Secondly, however, Christians would be wrong to reduce the Christian message to the working of any temporal political order, because that message deals with challenges and possibilities which go far beyond what sociologists call the limits of a ‘society of strangers’ and the arena of competitive difference. Democracy, on the other hand, assumes these as a given starting point. [51]

By contrast, Christianity at its best seeks a ‘society of friends’ from the ground-up and starts with the conviction that the resources available to us include a practical love which goes much further than (and indeed transforms) family, tribal, ‘religious’ or ‘secular’ loyalties. That is, divine love, which is not based on merit, position, bargaining or competition – but sheer gratuity. [52] Others do not accept this or, not believing in God and the superabundant good which God makes possible, can only regard it as ‘wishful thinking’. But such differences of belief – though far from trivial (as some suggest), are not a matters that a political order can sort out, imposing either a religious or a non-religious meaning to life on people, irrespective of their diverse convictions.

But a good people-oriented political order which knows its limits as well as its requirements, keeps the public square open for all, avoids privileging particular groups and also enables people to meet, argue and resolve – without suppressing their identity or difference.

A Christian perspective towards democratic renewal

Ekklesia’s argues that the best way forward for Christians (for the integrity of their own message, as well as for the good of others) is to disavow attempts to impose their own institutions and interests ‘from above’ or to seek special privileges from those with power. Instead, Christian people now have a positive opportunity to invest in the development of shared civil society and the re-orientation of the political order in the direction of civic (rather than corporate or ‘big money’) concerns, as well as renewing churches for the task of communicating their message of transformation in words and action as part of civil society.

This is what has begun to happen when Christians have been involved (as we have observed in this paper) in developing associative democratic practices, when they have helped to develop community development and community organising, when they have worked with others for racial justice, economic sharing, peacemaking and much else besides.

At the same time, Christian political imagination, while seeking the good of all, will always have an awkward and subversive element if it is true to its vocation. For example, welcoming outsiders, even if this defies nation-state boundaries and building peace, even if that undermines the profits of war. Christians, when they are true to their calling, will always pose a threat to those who wish to aggregate power or righteousness to themselves and to those who treat the world and its creatures, including its human ones, as a commodity to be managed and appropriated rather than a gift to be cherished and shared.

There may seem to be a great distance between these larger aspirations and the nitty-gritty of immediate choices but that gap has to be bridged. And it is bridged by people acting in particular hope-filled ways, not by abstract aspirations or theories. In terms of the electoral arena in Britain, for example, churches have for some time provided space, hospitality and resources for debate and ‘hustings’. This is not (and should not be) about trying to ‘control the debate’. Instead, it is about enabling it, enlarging it, and finding places of questioning, challenge, affirmation and practical testimony within it. In the current turmoil, the churches have an opportunity to think more about their civic role and how it may be fruitfully developed.

For example, the Jury Team are suggesting that independents – and there are already many of them coming forward - take part in American-style primaries. The whole community, rather than a handful of party activists, can then vote to decide which independent candidate should go forward and contest the general election.

This is an opportunity that the churches should not miss. Since, at successive elections, they have been primary providers of forums at which local communities can hold their parliamentary candidates to account, they have the chance to throw their energy behind primaries too. In this way, Churches could be at the heart of the new, broad movement to reinvigorate democracy from the ground up. At the same time, they are challenged to re-examine their own systems for representation and participation (often modelled on existing political ones) and open themselves up to those inside and outside their buildings and activities. [53]

Here is a chance to do things differently, to challenge what St Paul once condemned as ‘party spirit’ and listed as a destructive impulse alongside ‘selfish ambition’. He was thinking of factionalism within the church. But this is a shared human failing. What we need instead is a shared human opportunity to take our politics, our participation and ourselves in a fresh direction. [54]



[1] For the broader context for Ekklesia’s engagement with issues of political change, both in relation to religion and in its widest context, see Jonathan Bartley’s book Faith and Politics After Christendom: The church as a movement for anarchy (Paternoster, 2006): http://tinyurl.com/d2n99k and Simon Barrow, ‘Redeeming Religion in the Public Square’, http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/oldsite/content/article_060724redeeming.shtml
[2] ComRes telephoned a nationally representative sample of 1010 GB adults between 20 and 21 May 2009. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Full tables at www.comres.co.uk
[3] ‘New poll shows public thinks independent candidates can help reinvigorate democracy’, Ekklesia Press Release, http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9500
[4] ‘Public backs independent candidates to challenge failing system’ - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9501
[5] To put the headline statistics into context, Ekklesia asked a professional statistician with an interest in psephology and direct experience of electoral politics to comment on the poll and its findings. Dr Henry Potts’ own perspective is different to that of Ekklesia, which is partly why we asked him for a comment. He wrote in response: “[This poll] is interesting. It tells us that people are keen on the idea of ‘independents’ and it quantifies something people have been talking about as a reaction to the expenses drama. What you do not know, and what no poll would tell you, is whether these feelings now would actually produce a significant vote for independents in a real election. Psephological history tells us that people will vote for independents (or minor parties largely identified with one person) if they can obtain a sufficient profile such that people know about them and think they can win (Richard Taylor, Deeny Kieran, Martin Bell, Dai Davies, and George Galloway) are examples. But that is what is difficult to achieve. It is [historically] easier in a by-election (Davies). It is easier if some of the large parties do not stand against you (Taylor, Bell). It is easier with a specific issue (Taylor, Kieran, Bell, Galloway). Yet sometimes the voters just do not like you (Kilroy, apparently). The data ComRes gives [is] limited [in not giving] a breakdown by respondents' party allegiances. There is no striking variation by the demographic data given. I tested the results by region and there is a statistically significant difference for question 1 (‘British democracy would be strengthened if there were more independent MPs’), with the Scots agreeing much less than [those elsewhere]. But nothing else is statistically significant by region. The biggest differences seem to be by age for the last two questions. For question 3 (‘I would seriously consider voting for an independent candidate at the next General Election’), the 55+ are significantly less likely to agree, with the 25-44 year olds being significantly more likely to agree. For question 4 (‘At the next general election independent candidates should stand against MPs who have behaved unethically’), it is particularly the 65+ age range who agree less here.”
[6] See also Simon Barrow, ‘Religion in an open society’, by Simon Barrow
[7] For more on Jury Team see: http://www.juryteam.org/
[8] In Britain ‘Broad-Based Organising, which has attracted both enthusiasts and critics in equal number (it can be very effective, it can become too communalist) is linked through the Citzens' Organising Foundation - http://www.cof.org.uk/ For more on BBO (“the deliberate effort to cross lines of race, class, religion, and geography to build organizations with sufficient power to stand for the whole and address common-good issues in local communities.”) see: Roots for radicals: organizing for power, action, and justice by Edward T. Chambers, Michael A. Cowan (2003) and ‘Building Democracy: Faith-based Community Organising’ by Michael Warren (www.nhi.org/online/issues/115/Warren.html).
[9] For more on Common Cause, see: http://www.commoncause.org/
[10] The New Politics Network was established in 2000, following the winding up of Democratic Left. It sought to draw together people from the centre, left and green dimensions of politics. In November 2007 the NPN merged with Charter 88 to form a new campaigning group, Unlock Democracy. Its strapline “connecting people and politics” was maintained.
[11] The Convention on Modern Liberty: http://www.modernliberty.net/
[12] Ekklesia’s features and news tracking on the Convention can be viewed here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/6866
[13] OpenDemocracy: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ Particularly relevant to questions of the future of politics in Britain is oD’s ‘Our Kingdom’ project, to which Ekklesia has contributed: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom
[14] Charter 88: See the ‘ten demands’ (1998-2008), with which Ekklesia would concur: http://www.csls.ox.ac.uk/charter88/10demands.php
[15] Unlock Democracy: An independent all-party campaign for constitutional reform in the UK - http://www.unlockdemocracy.org.uk/
[16] Margot McDonald MSP (Member of the Scottish Parliament) – ‘Britain’s most frugal politician’, The Times - http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article6382819.ece
[17] Richard Taylor MP GP (Independent, Health Concern) - http://www.doctortaylor.info/
[18] The term comes from a series of books by political commentator and economist Will Hutton, commencing with The State We’re In, which looked at the British settlement with an sceptical eye, suggesting that the democratic process needed significant renewal, with politics sitting on the precipice of a new form of ideologically driven politics which crossed party lines and found itself locked in the crucible of neo-liberalism.
[19] ‘Evangelical leader says “radical change” is needed in parliamentary system’ - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9557 The need to move beyond self-righteous popular anger against MPs and 'the system' is vital if real change is to be entertained.
[20] For more on social movements and the paradigm shift in post-war politics, see Staurt Hall and Martin Jacques, New Times (Lawrence & Wishart Ltd, 1989) and James Proctor, Thatcherism and New Times (Routledge, 2004) - http://tinyurl.com/q2lx2p In his earlier days in the Young Liberals and as a pioneer in anti-apartheid direct action tactics, recently reappointed Labour government minister, Peter Hain, wrote a book called Radical Regeneration (1976) advocating participative democracy. When absorbed into a governing party, his questioning ideas became more institutionalised. Chantal Mouffe (http://www.wmin.ac.uk/sshl/page-1527) "s currently elaborating a non-rationalist approach to political theory; formulating an 'agonistic' model of democracy; and engaged in research projects on the rise of right-wing populism in Europe and the place of Europe in a multipolar world order."
[21] More on Saul Alinsky, his life and thought: http://www.itvs.org/democraticpromise/alinsky.html
[22] In 1988 Barack Obama wrote an article (http://sweetness-light.com/archive/obama-after-alinsky-community-organizing) which later became the fourth chapter of the book After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois edited by Peg Knoepfle (Institute for Public Affairs, July 1990). Much of the coverage of Obama’s engagement with Alinsky has sadly come from the paranoid right-wing fringes of American political discourse.
[23] Associationalism - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Associationalism See also material in Pat Logan, A World Transformed (Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, 2007), which provides a thoughtful and sophisticated analysis of contemporary political thought in Christian perspective. http://www.ctbi.org.uk/194/ See also Paul Hirst, Associative Democracy (Polity, 1993) - a key text.
[24] Communitarianism - http://www.cpn.org/tools/dictionary/communitarian.html See also, for appraisal and critique of communitarian ideas and various responses to them: Steven Lukes, Liberals and Cannibals: The implications of diversity (Verso).
[25] John Neville Figgis - http://anglicanhistory.org/england/jnfiggis/
[26] On Walter Rauschenbusch, founding figure in the ‘social gospel’ movement (which has since drawn ire from Christian radicals such as Stanley Hauerwas), see: http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Rauschenbusch,+Walter
[27] Rowan Williams, ‘Nations, Morals and Markets’, The 2002 Richard Dimbleby Lecture - http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/people/scripts/rwdi...
[28] See: Stuart Murray, Post-Christendom: Church and mission in a strange new world (Paternoster Press, 2004) – available through Ekklesia: http://tinyurl.com/qvlbmt
[29] Andrew Rawnsley, ‘A climate of loathing towards all MPs is bad for democracy’ The Observer, Sunday 24 May 2009.
[30] Alexander Chancellor, ‘Replacing MPs with people in white suits trumpeting their honesty is not the answer to this scandal’, The Guardian, Friday 22 May 2009.
[31] Jury Team Primaries: “From 16th March to 24th April [2009]we ran an open primary in which every member of the British public was given the opportunity to stand as an independent candidate. People signed-up on our website, gained a profile and then campaigned to attract as many votes as they could, which were cast by text-message. Those who gained the most votes in each region have gone onto our candidate list, where they are ordered according to the number of votes they gained.” http://www.juryteam.org/candidates.php
[32] ‘Group think’ is a condition recognised in a variety of ways in the modern psychology of groups and collectivities. It denotes the common mental attitudes (http://www.cedu.niu.edu/~fulmer/groupthink.htm) that develop, in resistance to dissenting or minority interpretations, in situations where the needs of the person and the needs of the group they form part of have become solidified to the point of instinctual and political identification. The recent work of William Bion (http://www.human-nature.com/rmyoung/papers/pap148h.html), the Grubb Institute (http://www.grubb.org.uk/) and the Tavistock Institute (http://www.tavinstitute.org/) has been foundational in identifying and enabling interventions within ‘group process’.
[33] The terms ‘institutional truth’ was coined by the late, great American political economist John Kenneth Galbraith (http://tinyurl.com/punsnb) as part of his critique of power politics and the late twentieth century Western culture of affluence. It means a circumscribed or sanitised version of the truth convenient to the vested interests of the institution, party, group or cause – one that has now become so ingrained that its advocates are virtually incapable of distinguishing it from a more demanding or difficult truth.
[34] ‘Community forums’ have developed in the USA and elsewhere, in civic life and in cyberspace. See: http://www.communityforums.org/web/guest/home
[35] Select Committees in the UK Parliament: http://www.parliament.uk/about/how/committees/select.cfm
[36] In Britain, immigration is one public ‘debate’ where the collusion of major parties, the tabloidised media, racist groups and neighbourhood anxieties and prejudices have often worked together – in the context of a barrier-based policy framework since 1951 – in suppressing genuinely independent thought. An alternative perspective is suggested by Vaughan Jones in ‘Are immigration controls moral?’ (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/280405immigration) and by Simon Barrow in ‘Migration’s real meaning in Guardian Comment-is-Free (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/aug/28/migrationsrealmeaning).
[37] For news and analysis of the interventions of the BNP, including their attempts to capitalise on a Christendom identification of civic Christianity with an exclusive or racialised account of ‘nation’, see: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/1872
[38] Hope Not Hate is the campaign to expose and combat the BNP: http://action.hopenothate.org.uk/
[39] The two most quoted ‘celebrity’ independents in recent weeks have been Esther Rantzen, who whatever you think of her viewpoints, has a solid background in consumer affairs and public interest journalism, and the actor Joanna Lumley, whose use of political pressure to secure better conditions for Ghurkhas attracted both admiration and admonition. Lumley has so far eschewed both the idea of running for parliament herself and of association with a major party, looking instead to the Greens. Terry Waite, the former adviser to Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Robert Runcie, known best for his time in captivity after being kidnapped in Lebanon. He now worships with the Quakers, and retains considerable policy experience. See his Ekklesia article, ‘opportunity lies behind the political crisis’ - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9578 . These figures may be ‘celebrities’ in the sense of well-know people who attract media attention, but it would be highly partial to impute the kind of vacuousness and self-seeking popularly attached to the term.
[40] Representation of the People Act 1832. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reform_Act_1832
[41] Both the publicly aggressive Christian groups crying “secular conspiracy” and the more hard-line secular pundits crying “keep religion out” adhere to nominally pluralist positions. But their often angry, simplistic and derisive rhetoric betrays a deeper desire to defeat or marginalise ‘the other’. They also seek impose their particular agendas on the universal (and diverse) labels ‘Christian’ and ‘secular’, thus closing down possibilities and perspectives which might reduce or challenge confrontation – the means through which they believe their ‘just causes’ will triumph. Ekklesia does not wish to suppress conflict unhealthily, but neither do we see the world exclusively in damaging, oppositional terms. We believe the traditions of enemy-love, conflict transformation and restorative justice offer alternative ways forward. But these ways have to be contended for in an environment where hectoring voices seek to diminish them.
[42] See, for example, Ekklesia’s ongoing project to explore different ‘secularisms’ (plural) and the wide range of policy options they suggest for engaging ‘religions’ (plural) – ranging on both sides from containment to dialogue to mutuality. http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/4860
[43] Simon Barrow ‘Keeping the wrong kind of religion out of politics’ – http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/content/barrow/article_2003_09_7_2737.shtml
[44] The demise of Christendom and the rise of post-Christendom is being explored in a series of books about faith, the church, politics, youth and much more published by Paternoster Press. See: http://postchristendom.com Stuart Murray has set the tone of the debate positively in Post Christendom (2004) and Church After Christendom (2005). The false polarisation that assumes that ‘the church will end up dominating us if it is not kept out of politics’ is based on a failure to perceive the fact, meaning and significance of the post-Christendom paradigm shift. The most powerful argument against the ‘church of power’ is theological, not secular.
[45] Ekklesia has consistently argued, on theological grounds, against Establishment and state churches, unelected bishops in an unelected House of Lords, blasphemy laws, religious exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, religious discrimination in education, and other elements of the ‘Christendom settlement’. We have argued strongly for an alternative theological vision and practice of church rooted in witness (words and actions based on good example and self-sacrifice) not control (attempts to use the state or the law to impose the interests of religious institutions). We do so on radical-traditional rather than liberal-revisionist Christian grounds.
[46] See Ekklesia’s ‘statement of values’ here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/about/values
[47] Liberal ‘Christian realist’ Reinhold Niebuhr and post-liberal Christian radical Stanley Hauerwas represent diametrically opposing poles in the debate about the goods of democracy – with the former suggesting that it can be a political outworking of personal Christian virtues which are inapplicable collectively and the latter arguing that the primary political task of Christians is to construct the church as an alternative political reality, not to give up on conversion to the way of Christ and God’s peaceable kingdom in order “secure cooperative agreement between people who share nothing in common other than the fear of death.” See Mark Coffey, The Theological Ethics of Stanley Hauerwas: A Very Concise Introduction (Grove Ethics Series, January 2009) and Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton University Press, 2004).
[48] Alasdair Macintyre, writing in After Virtue (Duckworth, 1981), Whose Rationality? Which Justice? (Duckworth, 1988) and Three Rival Accounts of Moral Enquiry (University of Indiana Press, 1990), makes the case that virtues, moral attributes and ‘communities of character’ are based in particular traditions that cannot be reduced or amalgamated into a single post-Enlightenment modernity rooted in the authority of the autonomous individual. It is the latter that has largely shared democracy and market systems. This defines their limits and possibilities.
[49] Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s thought on all this is provisional and complex. Rooted in Lutheranism, it reaches out to a post-Christendom perspective. See:
Robin Lovin, ‘The Christian and the Authority of the State: Bonhoeffer’s Reluctant Revisions’ in John D. Godsey and Geffrey Kelly, eds., Ethical Responsibility (Edwin Mellen, Toronto, 1981) and Bonhoeffer’s own Ethics (Macmillian, 1965). Michael Hardin rightly points out that Bonhoeffer’s distinctions between religion and society need to be re-understood in terms of the roots of both in violence, as analysed by Rene Girard: see http://www.preachingpeace.org/documents/Bonhoeffer.pdf
[50] See: Simon Barrow, ‘Redeeming Religion in the Public Square’, section six - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/oldsite/content/article_060724redeeming.shtml
[51] It is possible to share Hauerwas’ view that Christian ethics is distinctively radical and rooted in commitments a general democratic order cannot make, without agreeing that this means abandoning public policy issues, as he suggests. See Hauerwas’ interview with Michael Quirk in CrossCurrents online journal, Spring 2002.
[52] This practical-theological account of God as the ‘truly non-competitive Other’ who invites us into a new society of grace through interpersonal transformation has been expounded in a variety of creative ways in the writings of Archbishop Rowan Williams.
[53] See: Jonathan Bartley writing in the Church Times, 4 June 2009. An adaptation of his article is available on Ekklesia: ‘The Churches and rejuvenating democracy’ - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9577 Regarding the political structures of the churches: in cases like the Synodical government of the church of England, quasi-parliamentary arrangements (reflecting the same shortcomings, inadequacies and exclusions as the systems they have drawn upon) are direct reflections of the Christendom pattern. The church is shaped more by the order it seeks favour from, and offers blessing to, than to its own origins as a people's movement.
[54] For this reason, ‘Christian’ political parties are not, in Ekklesia’s view, a good idea. As a vehicle for Christian engagement they are stuck in the hegemonic mould of Christendom – projecting what is actually a sectional version of Christianity as one political identity over and against others.



© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. A writer, commentator, theologian and consultant, he has a background in current affairs and politics as well as theological education and church-based community action. www.simonbarrow.net