Event Review: Demsoc at the Headstrong Club, Lewes, 31/1/14

Debate at the Headstrong Club was so heated the windows steamed up!

The Elephant and Castle pub in Lewes was host to a packed room for the first Headstrong Club meeting of the year featuring Demsoc’s Anthony Zacharzewski. Anthony spoke about the challenges and opportunities within contemporary democracy and some of projects the Democratic Society are running in Lewes District and beyond.

Anthony used his allotted time to discuss “the practical consequences of where our democracy is today.” He noted that we are currently “starving in the midst of plenty.” Although voter turnout, engagement and trust in politicians and institutions are low; there are a variety of opportunities and possibilities for deeper engagement in democracy. He highlighted that while party politics is in decline, community and issue politics in on the rise, with a civic core of around “a third of the population who do at least one community activity a year.”

Anthony addresses the Headstrong Club.
Anthony addresses the Headstrong Club.

Anthony argued that the way traditional politics currently works is not suited to the contemporary environment of instantaneous services and an array of choice. In a world of ubiquitous communication how can traditional politics possibly satisfy with the notion that “in 5 years time you will get a vote and something might change.” Anthony suggests that the way we do politics must change to “a more deliberative and more participative way of working.” He noted that while large movements like “38 degrees are a brilliant way to start a conversation; you need people to shape decisions at the end… Mass campaign organisations… put an enormous amount of content into an existing small system that is not going to handle the content well.” He argued that it would be better if all political conversations and opinions are “networked” in order to help politicians and decision makers understand what is being said and help them collaborate with citizens to make better and well informed policy choices.

Anthony went on to outline a number of democratic experiments that Demsoc are carrying out to try and bring about a more deliberative democracy including NHS Citizen and our work with Lewes District Council. The projects in Lewes consist of the Zero Heroes Community Competition and a new project to co-design a Civic Platform to help the public have greater influence over local decision making. The Lewes Citizen Civic Platform will be launched with an initial design workshop in March. The Lewes Citizen project aims to find “a better way of deliberating and better way of putting public voice into politics” in order to reconnect the public with the District Council. Anthony stated that if we don’t do these democratic experiments we risk creating a “hollowed out democracy” that stops citizens being able to control the decisions made about the places and issues they care about.

Compulsory vote on compulsory voting.
Compulsory vote on compulsory voting.

As ever, with any Headstrong Club meeting, there was an impassioned debate about the themes of Anthony’s speech. There was discussion around the credibility of our current political system; the problems facing the NHS; the importance of education to increase youth participation; referenda; and there was even a compulsory vote on the merits of compulsory voting! Anthony noted that many of the issues and problems highlighted could be improved by creating “a more conversational democracy, but this will take time.” He also stressed that “democracy is about deciding together.” We hope that our projects will help create a situation where the public and politicians can decide together and help improve some of our democratic ills.

At the end of the evening attendees completed our survey on public influence and decision making which will help inform our Lewes Citizen project. You can also help shape the way Lewes District Council involves the public in local decision making by filling in the survey online and signing up to our mailing list. You can listen to a recording of Anthony’s talk on our Soundcloud page.

If you want to find out more about our work or engage with our projects then please do not hesitate to contact us via email at lewes@demsoc.org, or on twitter @DemsocLewes. 

Photos by Ben Stanley & Ali Stoddart.