Members of the public in the Commons: populist stunt or authentic democratic renewal?

As a populist stunt, it is certainly a clever one.

As a populist stunt, it’s certainly a clever one

Ed Miliband announced today that if he were elected Prime Minister, he would invite a carefully selected cross-section of the public into the House of Commons to question him. This would take place on a Wednesday afternoon, after questions from MPs.

Is this a populist stunt designed to make the wider public feel included, or is it a brave step towards authentic regeneration?

As a populist stunt, it is certainly a clever one. In a climate in which young people feel that there is no point in voting because it will not make a difference, or, worse, will legitimise the current politics, offering this appearance of inclusion could bring a swing towards Labour.

The move may also be considered somewhat cynical. Simply inviting a cross-section of the public to question the Prime Minister will not make the Prime Minister’s answers any more authentic. Nor will it give those people an opportunity to actually change what is happening around them. It’s more Wizard of Oz than Yes We Can.

What is worse, simply inviting the public to ‘have a go’ at drawing a genuine answer from an opaque Prime Minister may disenchant the public further.

But perhaps this move is a real signal authentic democratic renewal. If one reads the move in the context of other steps by Ed Miliband to embrace a post-liberal, democratic agenda, it can be seen as one amongst many changes that could genuinely reinvigorate democracy.

Most important of these changes was inviting Arnie Graf, a US community organiser, to reinvigorate safe Labour seats. Graf’s techniques included inviting non-Labour voters into public meetings to encourage authentic debate about what the local community wanted.

This suggested a step away from the latest technocratic move in electioneering, microtrends, and towards the renewal of genuine democratic consensus building. Just last month, however, we hear Arnie Graf was fired.

In short, if this is an isolated move, it should be treated with all the cynicism I’m short it will receive. If, however, Ed carves this move out in terms of a wider context of democratic renewal, we should see it as a genuine step towards a better politics.

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