Increasing citizens’ engagement with political power

The Commission on Political Power has published (24 October 2023) ideas for how to improve UK democracy by engaging citizens better. Falling trust is a serious problem as a result of scandals like 'partygate', financial corruption and government incompetence. This has to change.

Several people's hands raised in the air

This resource was originally published on The Commission on Political Power’s website. You can read the original paper here. 

The issue of falling trust in our political system is not new. But it has come to the forefront in recent years with a prominence that cannot be ignored as the norms at the heart of British democracy have been challenged by a series of central governments that have called into question our ‘good chaps’ system of governance. Alongside this, scandals such as ‘Partygate’ have further eroded citizens’ perception of our national political representatives.

A long-term problem feeding the perception, and reality, of disengagement with our political system is that of rising inequality – not just between the different regions and nations of the UK but between different social groups and generations, in both economic terms and when it comes to holding political power.

While British politics has always been seen as a somewhat elite activity, there is an increasing feeling that the system does not, and cannot, work for many people – which, in turn, has given rise to an increasingly disengaged electorate.

At the same time, the high level of engagement with issues such as climate change, through political activism by groups of younger citizens in ‘Gen Z’ and those profoundly concerned about the impact of politics on our world shows that there are opportunities to galvanise citizens as well as an appetite for making them more engaged with politics.

With democratic norms under attack around the world, we cannot afford to be complacent about citizens’ relationship with our political system. But we also cannot afford to reduce democratic engagement with the ballot box. Democracy isn’t just about voting at the polling station once every five years or so – it should be about a political ethos in which everyone feels they have a stake and can be involved. In practice it is indeed a patchwork of engagements at local, regional and national level in which thousands of people give their time and expertise so that governance works. This involves school governors, charity volunteer managers, community groups, local political party activists and many more. This is the foundation of democracy. The question is how can these hundreds of thousands of men and women be given more power and a better say in central government – after all, they know best.

Democracy is a complex web of checks and balances that must engage positively with citizens. A government cannot claim a total right to decide what to do once it has been elected, that is a dictatorship. Citizens must be able to express their views and exercise power regularly, whether it be through local government, involvement in local and national bodies or even on the streets.

This paper sets out a variety of options for considering how we might increase democratic engagement with Britain’s political system. Some focus on improvements that could be made to the existing Westminster system, while the majority of options consider what can be done outside of the remit of national level politics – so that politics can, to a much greater extent, involve and empower all of the citizens of this country.

Option 1      

Foster the use of deliberative processes to complement our representative political system – such as citizens’ assemblies, people’s panels and other tools that can help inform politicians’ decision-making

Recent surveys have suggested that voters are not only concerned that the institutions of our political system are not fit for purpose, but that political representatives and experts are not always best placed to make decisions.

Citizens’ assemblies consist of groups of people brought together to learn about an issue, hear from experts, discuss and reach conclusions about how it should be tackled. The process is analogous to juries in the criminal justice system – broadly supported by the public for their fairness and impartiality.

Citizens’ assemblies have been held all over the world, including in the UK. The Climate Assembly UK, for instance, was the first UK-wide citizens’ assembly on climate change, which was commissioned by six House of Commons committees. Its purpose was to understand public preferences on how the UK should tackle climate change because of the impact of these decisions on people’s lives – with a final report produced in September 2020.

In some countries, such as Ireland, citizens’ assemblies have become part of the political culture and have led to significant legislative and cultural change – most notably in Ireland on the contentious issue of abortion.

There are a number of organisations providing expertise in facilitating citizens’ assemblies in the UK, meaning governments do not need to develop an in-house capacity to do this.

Citizens’ assemblies are part of a process rather than an end in themselves – they are there to facilitate discussion in politics and society and inform politicians in their decision-making, not to deliver binding ‘solutions’. The most effective citizens’ assemblies are when politicians are engaged with the process from the start.

As a form of deliberative democracy, citizens’ assemblies do not seek to replace the role of politicians, but complement their decision-making processes as representatives. The work of organisations facilitating the assemblies is to make the public aware that citizens’ assemblies exist as a democratic tool with which they can engage, and to make politicians aware that this is an option open to them. Indeed, the work of citizens’ assemblies has been shown to increase respect for our political system through allowing people to understand how decision-making on difficult issues feels.

Citizens’ assemblies are one option when it comes to deliberative tools which could be encouraged at a local level to engage with local government. Others include town hall meetings, ad hoc people’s panels or deliberative online polling.

A suggestion is that they could be included more formally in the national structure to advise and guide parliamentary decision making. This would be particularly useful in contentious issues for example on assisted dying where politicians have not been able to agree a way forward.

Option 2      

Prioritise engaging and empowering young people to understand and take part in politics and believe they have a stake in our democracy – through activism and education

Increasing numbers of young people do not see traditional forms of representation as the answer – but they are keen to be politically engaged.

Organisations such as My Life My Say are examples of how this generation can be supported to find more of a stake in Britain’s politics. It is a youth-led, non-partisan movement which aims to change the culture of how young people see democracy, make politics accessible and get every young person voting. It is renowned globally for its ‘democracy cafés’ and the UK’s leading youth summit.

Citizenship in schools is another key area which could equip young people to understand our political system and the role they can have in our democracy. While citizenship education is not a statutory part of the curriculum for primary school pupils in England, it has been a statutory part of the curriculum at key stages 3 and 4 in all state-maintained secondary schools since 2002.

However, as the charity Young Citizens points out, citizenship studies in schools have faltered in recent years. Changes to Ofsted inspections mean it is no longer inspected as a subject, while support for citizenship teaching has plummeted and bursaries are no longer available. Government funding for organisations with expertise in citizenship studies has also decreased in the past decade in line with new educational priorities, and with school budgets stretched. Provision of citizenship studies in schools is therefore inconsistent and is not delivering the benefits it could to enhance citizen engagement with political power. So there is great scope for improvement in this area.

Another way young people could be engaged in politics is through expanding the role of formal youth councils within local authorities to encompass working with schools. Resources for organisations such as the Youth Parliament could also be bolstered.

The impact of recent changes to electoral law introducing mandatory voter ID for all citizens in England should also be monitored for any disproportionate effect of this policy on younger voters at the ballot box.


Option 3      

Practical ways the public could be better informed about our political system

Campaigns spearheaded by public figures can be harnessed to increase democratic knowledge and participation for people of all ages.

Public figures, such as chef Jamie Oliver and footballer Marcus Rashford, have shown they have the reach and influence to engage with under-represented communities and this could be used to spread awareness of our democracy and how the political system works, in a non-partisan manner.

Other means of reaching citizens and helping them to understand the workings of the British political system should also be considered. For instance, how could the BBC Parliament TV channel be enhanced and made more widely known – so that citizens are informed and provided with context, rather than simply given the chance to view live-streams of debates or committee meetings?


Option 4      

Local government and models aim to increase citizen engagement in democracy at a local and regional level

The reality, and perception, that political and economic power is disproportionately concentrated in London and the south-east of England has given rise to local models of community partnerships in recent years which could provide valuable insights about how people can take politics – and its impact on their lives – into their own hands.

Local government is cheap, efficient and comparatively well understood. Local councils have been starved of funding and had power grabbed away from them. This needs to be reversed and local councils and metro mayors should be given more autonomous funding and decision making powers.

The Preston Model is one case study. It consists of the council, its institutions and other partners (including the private sector) working together to implement the principles of ‘community wealth building’ in Preston and the wider Lancashire area. The local university, colleges, housing associations and the police are all involved – with the various stakeholders working together with a shared agenda for shared benefit. The model aims to ensure that the benefits of local growth are invested in the local area, and used to support investment in productive economic activities.

The sorts of initiatives that can be introduced as part of this local model can include community banking and local currencies, as well as asset transfers to stimulate new business growth.

Local partnership models currently exist in Oldham, Birmingham, Salford, Islington, Enfield, Southampton, Wakefield, Bristol and elsewhere.


Option 5      

Consider how representation in civic society organisations can help foster greater democratic engagement and accountability

Many people offer up their time, experience and resources in non-party political roles on a local and national level that are an essential element of democratic life in action. Examples include sitting school governing boards, boards of governors, arms-length bodies, volunteering to manage civic society organisations.

People should be encouraged to see these roles as a form of democratic engagement and should be motivated to apply for public appointments. Application processes should be independent and transparent and there should be a level-playing field for applicants who can show conspicuous merit. Citizens given such roles should also be afforded a level of protection in the course of their duties.

In this way, people can feel there are options for them to contribute to the idea of democratic power running through society – away from Westminster and national level politics.


Option 6      

Primaries to select party candidates could enhance democratic engagement

The introduction of primaries to select parliamentary and local council candidates for elections could enable people to have a greater say in who their potential representatives are. The experience of the open primaries conducted by the Conservative Party since 2009 suggests that they can attract large-scale participation and generate an interesting selection of candidates.

Such opportunities might go alongside town hall meetings that engage all local citizens including young people.


Option 7      

Consider how the ethics and output of the media present challenges to greater democratic engagement, as well as the demise of local journalism across the UK, and the impact of social media

The media – print, online and social – is a key way in which messages about our democracy and political system reach our citizens. However, whether Britain is striking the right balance between press freedom and the prevention of press abuse is in need of urgent consideration.

Disinformation is a threat to democracy and citizens’ engagement which will become ever more dangerous with a more sophisticated social media and AI.

Local journalism, which can do so much to engage citizens in the areas in which they live and give voice to their concerns, is in decline across the country. While reviews have been undertaken into what this means, a long-term strategy for implementation is required as to how good quality local newspapers can be revived alongside social media being made less misleading.