If a democracy is a society where the people are sovereign and everyone’s voice is heard (which is a debatable definition), then I say No.
Why am I struck by this today particularly? My second conference in two days (both of which I was involved in scheduling so I can’t complain) was organised by the bubbling under brilliance of Planning Democracy to discuss planning from the ‘People’s Perspective’. So basically, about 80odd people from across Scotland who are the unheard campaigners working to fight for their communities rights in the planning process. And regardless of their individual stories (many of which are heart wrenching), or of whether you judge them as NIMBYs or genuinely fighting against bad decisions, what struck me most was the overwhelming feeling of them wanted to be heard.
So why don’t they feel listened to? Well, an awesome idea, which I shall be stealing, was to have a ‘keynote listener’ in the form of a backbench MSP. Unfortunately when he stood up at the end of the morning session to announce he couldn’t stay any longer so could he speak now, he proceeded to tell the gathering a bunch of stuff that they know to be true but ineffectual. And had he actually listened to the testimonies presented earlier in the day he would have known that and should have responded to that. Now, I’m not here to judge this individual but I do think his response was indicative of what many of these communities encounter – that well intentioned people in power sometimes forget to actually LISTEN. Which means when someone does listen, even if it’s just a small group of like-minded people in a room, you feel validated. Which led me to both the lovely thought that this was an awesome gathering of people, but also to the slightly less upbeat thought that how many times have these people not been listened to?
And then I took the next obvious step – what about the people who don’t have the time, energy, passion, knowledge, etc etc to even get to the stage the people in this room are at?
These are the people who are too busy, too tired, too crazily fucked off with life, too screwed over by the system, too depressed or disappointed or disinterested to get involved at all. And yet, politics makes decisions for them, for all of us, without really listening, even to the engaged people. Is that democracy? Is it?