Overview of the book

New and old forms of (direct) democracy

Perhaps the first questions to ask about any democratic innovation - ones not often asked - is what relationship does it bear to conventional representative democracy and how can it help to improve it? Does it offer a way of solving the democratic malaise or improving the operations of conventional representative government? The first part of the book picks up the theme of the role of old representative institutions and practices in setting the parameters and the context for direct-democratic innovation. Ian Budge considers the relationship between new forms of direct democracy and traditional forms of representative democracy and the extent to which they must work in tandem to work satisfactorily. More specifically, he considers the importance of parties, legislatures and governments as mediators of direct-democratic processes and asks whether, without them, direct democracy runs the risk of majority or minority tyranny, of electoral cycling and arbitrary voting outcomes.

His theoretical analysis is well complemented by Kriesi’s close empirical examination of the Swiss case - probably the best example in the world of direct democracy in practice. Switzerland’s system of government mixes representative and direct principles and so Kriesi is able to analyse how they interact, what role parties and leaders play in political debate and mobilization, and how the actions of leaders and representative bodies are restrained by operations of direct democracy. He is also able to examine the impact of direct democracy on political and economic performance, as well as the extent to which citizens are able to perform the role they are allotted by theories of direct democracy. What does the Swiss case tell us about Sartori’s claim that direct democracy will ‘quickly and disastrously founder on the reefs of cognitive incompetence’ (Sartori 1987: 120)?

In the following chapter, David Beetham focuses on new and old forms of democracy and compares their modes of citizen political engagement. The more traditional forms are campaigns such as Make Poverty History, the Countryside Alliance and the anti-Iraq war movement. The more innovative types are the citizens’ forums used in the UK, and said by government to have an even more important role in the future. Citizens’ juries occupy an invited space, have a closed and selected membership and are typically proactive in their contribution to policy discussions. Campaigns and demonstrations claim their own space in the political arena. They have an open and self-selected membership, and are typically reactive in the sense that they respond to government policies.

Beetham considers the advantages and disadvantages of the two forms in terms of the numbers involved, their ability to reflect a cross section of public opinion on a given issue, and their ability to mobilize the previously uninvolved. He points out that there are trade-offs between juries and campaigns in this respect. He also considers the question of whether a greater use of the proactive and representative nature of citizens’ juries might help to reduce the reactive citizen campaigns and demonstrations, and whether this would be a desirable outcome from a democratic point of view. This, of course, ties in to the earlier discussion of the limitations of bottom-up innovations, given the claim that many people are unable to fulfil their citizen role.

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