How assemblies can inspire real democracy

A Word Power Books Festival Fringe discussion


Sunday, August 23, 2015

Penny Cole –  Assemblies for Democracy – the story so far

  • Assemblies for Democracy are a response to the reality of our hollowed out democracy – an empty form – power and decision-making relocated.
  • Wanted to explore and plan what a real democracy could be – build on experiences worldwide (Spain, Greece, Occupy and the Arab Spring) and learn lessons.
  • Group of very diverse organisations and individuals came together at a meeting hosted by John McDonnell MP (for list see
  • Assemblies have happend in Scotland, London, Manchester, Wales and County Wicklow in Ireland; others at the planning stage.
  • Different focus in each
    • Scotland – how can we sustain the democratic social movement that emerged from the referendum.
    • London – issues of Constitution
    • Manchester – Devo-Manc, the govt. plan to foist fake devolution on the City.
    • Wicklow – from the water privatisation campaign – now talking about democracy more widely.
    • Wales – isolation and neglect, the potential for more devolution, rural issues.
    • Huddersfield – at planning stage.
  • What we have in common:
    • Focus not on what we are against, but what we are FOR.
    • We’re not asking the state to do anything
    • We are modelling what a real participatory democracy would be
    • We do that in how we work together and how we relate to each other.
    • We’re experimental and the assembly is those who assemble, though we do aspire to greater continuity, development, good planning.

  • A regular on-line discussion involving all the Assemblies sharing experiences and opportunities starting in October. Not only those from the Assemblies for Democracy Initiative but others too joining in for example Oxford, North Wales.
  • Everyone recognising that participatory democracy is the mood of the moment. Corbyn has said it’s the movement that counts and must be sustained. The Scottish Left Project (RISE) is another electoral grouping, that aims to have grassroots organisations.
  • Everyone makes a bow in the direction of participatory democracy, and some more than that.
  • But for me it is the heart of the matter, and the future. It is about developing the counter-power to the state and at a certain moment, therefore, crucial.
  • There are plenty in A for D who wouldn’t agree with that at all and see the purpose in a different way.
  • That we go on working together with our different views, is the strength of Assemblies for Democracy.

Richard Gunn – a trajectory to real democracy

Following Penny’s presentation, I raised some questions about the forms that politics might take. I imagined forms of politics arranged on line: the line starts with sharply “vertical” politics (outright dictatorship) and becomes less-and-less vertical until complete “horizontality” (Occupy-style consensual democracy) is reached. The line does not represent a chronological time-line. It merely ranges political forms or patterns in a comparative way.


Letters on the line stand for forms that politics may take:

A stands for brutal, out-and-out dictatorship – or tyranny. 

B stands for absolute monarchy – which is top-down, although questions about “legitimacy” may be raised. A monarch (however “absolute”) is supposed to be different from a tyrant – in that a “monarch” rules in a “just” and “rightful” way. If the people over whom a king or queen rules disputes his or her justice or rightfulness, questions about “legitimacy” start to appear. 

C stands for what political theorists term élite democracy. On this model, parliamentary representatives are voted into office every five or so years – and then, once citizens have elected their representatives, citizens – the people – do nothing at all. It is the representatives (and not the citizens who take political decisions. The élite version of democracy takes a dim view of the electorate: in the words of Joseph Schumpeter, who (writing in the 1940s) champions élite democracy, the individual is ‘an indeterminate bundle of vague impulses loosely playing about given slogans and mistaken impressions’.

D stands for what is usually termed ‘liberal democracy’. Here, representatives are elected (as in Schumpeter) – but the citizens (or in other words the electorate) are seen as having a voice. This voice is expressed in what Jürgen Habermas terms a ‘public sphere’ – a sphere of debate where citizens (or at least some of them) have their say. The hope is that elected rulers listen to what is said. 

E stands for participatory democracy – where interaction amongst citizens comes into focus. Active, and interactive, citizens (and not merely their representatives) make political decisions. 

F stands for democracy that is participatory and consensual. That is: individuals meet together (in assemblies) and seek courses of action upon which they agree. They proceed, in other words, by seeking consensus. In models C and D and E, democracy is present – but in the form of majoritory voting (and majoritory rule). With F, the notions of majoritory voting and majority rule – and, with them, competition that results in a winners-and-losers distinction – are set aside. Democracy ceases to be majoritarian and takes a consensual form.

Having commented on my divided line, I raised some questions:

  • Should politics in the UK be shifted towards the “horizontal” end of my imagined spectrum?
  • Can politics in the UK be shifted towards the “horizontal” end of my imagined spectrum?
  • Is “real” democracy participatory and consensual (rather than representative and majoritarian)
  • What is the relation between “real” democracy and political parties (actual or imagined)?
  • What is the relation between “real” democracy and the state?
  • In what way or ways may “grassroots” democracy exist?

Discussion – which I do not attempt to summarise here – raised a number of issues. Speaking for myself: I found the Word Power event exciting and thought-provoking in the very best sense. Democracy (it seems to me) thrives on interaction and discussion. Many thanks to all who contributed on August 23!

It was agreed that the next Assembly for Democracy, to be held in Edinburgh, would continue the discussion.

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