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Brighton Festival 2017

Democracy Debate: What Comes Next?

Genre: Debate, Political

Venue: Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts (ACCA)


Low Down

Following the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, the rise of the right in Europe and the refugee crisis, Western societies are looking more polarised than ever. Is the system capable of tackling the real economic and environmental threats we face? And what comes next?

Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee chairs a panel of top thinkers and politicians to debate the future of our political system including Davy Jones, Green candidate for Brighton Kemptown, Labour candidate for Brighton Kemptown Lloyd Russell-Moyle, Tony Janio, Conservative group leader elect of Brighton and Hove City Council, the New Statesman columnist and author Laurie Penny and David Runciman of the University of Cambridge.


The recently re-opened ACCA is full. Clearly people care about democracy. Who knew? And it’s not just students either. In fact, I am young here! The audience are establishment enough that the woman next to me has a fan, and I’ve spotted my assistant headteacher two rows ahead of me.


Let’s see what transpires!


The panel are:


David Runciman: professor of politics and history at Cambridge

Laurie Penny: Feminist author and columnist for the Guardian and New Statesman

Tony Janio: Conservative councillor for Hangleton & Knoll

Davy Jones: Green candidate for Brighton Kemptown (who recently stood down to allow the Labour candidate to have a stronger proportion of the vote)

And Lloyd Russell-Moyle: That Labour candidate!


Overall, Polly Toynbee does an excellent and fair-handed job as chair. She gives fair time to all and isn’t afraid to join in herself, without ever coming down firmly on one side or the other.


Tony Janio (Conservative) wears shorts like a man entirely unafraid of public ridicule. He reclines almost exactly like my old physics teacher (I say that as a physics teacher!). He thinks democracy is alive and well. Democracy has its rough and its smooth and you take what you get. To the loud amusement of the audience, he describes the Tories as centrist!


Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Labour) thinks people are unsatisfied. Democracy has stagnated. How do you get a democracy where people feel they have a voice? Do you use technology? Estonia has electronic voting, and we still have the house of Lords. He’s in favour of proportional representation (and alternative voting in general). He thinks we should look at other countries models.


Davy Jones (Green) says democracy was hard won, but now people feel powerless. The referenda show us that people do care about democracy, but the first part the post system doesn’t let us view for what we believe in. Our system leads to the losers winning and the winners losing. More participatory democracy. We could have advisory electronic referenda. We should completely modernise the democratic system so people can have the say that they want to have.


David Runciman points out that the SNP got 45% of the Scottish vote in the last general election. In a referendum that’s a defeat. In a French system they’d go on to fight the right-wing party, and in the first-past-the-post system they would win in an unprecedented landslide.


Laurie Penny (who I have to say was really rather wonderful) said that we have seen that  referenda are open to abuse. She also pointed out that we all work on the assumption that politicians have deeply held beliefs, but in fact they’re merely out for themselves. The Right and Centre-Left think people need controlling and they don’t know what’s good for them. They think: What can we get away with and still call it democracy?


Overall the debate is genial and reasonable. At one point Toynbee reasonably argues that Janio seems to be the only one not on the left, and should therefore have more time (which no-one objects to). While he uses much of it to come across as smug and distant (not much point hiding my own views at this point!), he also makes some fair points. For example he pointed out at one point that although the first-past-the-post system might have flaws, it does force the candidates to actually meet their constituents. He was, however, roundly attacked for implying that there was only one form of PR.


Runciman made what I considered to be an excellent point. He said that the recent French elections (the French have two rounds of elections; the first is more open and the second is one party against another) showed that Europeans essentially fall into three groups: Socialists, Liberals and Nationalists. This (along with the way our first-past-the-post system is designed for a two-party system, as pointed out by Jones) means that in our country the Centrist Liberals control the balance of power and the fragmented Left find it very hard to win against a united Right.


I don’t really know what I was expecting from this debate. It certainly didn’t surprise me, but then I’m not sure what it could have done better (other than an all-out fight, but maybe that says more about my views on democracy than the panel’s).


I do feel like I got an interesting new perspective on the first-past-the-post system, and now feel even more strongly about it. So that’s pretty good.


I suppose one question could be: how many more people would have to be doing this sort of thing on a Saturday night before our political system looked any different?