David Miliband MP: democracy needs participation to work

Democracy has never been more popular in the world – yet it has never been a greater subject of disaffection in those countries where it has been in use the longest.

David Miliband MP speaking at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory

So said British Labour MP David Miliband during a dialogue hosted today, Human Rights Day, at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Houghton, Johannesburg. The topic of the dialogue was “How to make a difference in democratic politics”.

Before Mr Miliband, a former Foreign Secretary (and one of the youngest to ever hold the post), spoke, the audience was invited to open the dialogue by expressing views on the subject.

“If we want to make a difference in politics, we need an active citizenry,” said one man, who disputed the notion that participation in democratic processes meant voting every five years.

“I think a lot of people think society is changed by big men and women – but it’s actually ordinary people,” he added.

Another audience member said she was puzzled about how democracy is retained as times change, and she believed the challenge was to keep young people engaged in democratic processes “so that we reach our long-term vision”.

A third agreed that it is “key” for young South Africans to be involved in democratic politics, or they cannot complain in the future about how matters have turned out.

“Let’s own the future, let’s use social media, and let’s not always defer to our elders,” he declared.

“Our greatest misfortune is not inequality, but dependence,” said another, who deplored the fact that young South Africans “are always complaining”.

“If we as young people abandon this culture of entitlement, then we have a lot ahead of us,” he said.

The final opinion expressed, by a Mandela Rhodes scholar in the audience, was that South Africans have to “look specifically at participation” in democratic politics, which then give democratic structures legitimacy and open them up to accountability. Making a difference in politics does not reside with political parties and government alone, he asserted.

Mr Miliband spoke of the “paradox of the democratic process”, in that it is currently at the height of its global popularity – yet is under fire in some of the world’s oldest democracies, where people feel frustrated.

“Democracy has never been more popular in the world. We’re now looking at 80% of the world’s population being more or less democratic. It’s an historic moment for a movement that’s been 200 years in the making,” he said.

“On the other hand, it’s never been a greater subject of disaffection in the countries where it’s been used the most.”

This disaffection in Britain stemmed, he believed, from a centralised political system that disempowers people, a mismatch between people’s expectations and what is delivered, the disappearance of class and ideological differences between parties, and that confidence in the political system has been undermined by the recent scandal around MPs’ expenses.

Mr Miliband highlighted five points, which he felt are necessary for democracy to make a difference:

• Take action: “The only way to create hope is to take action … a small action will create more hope than big rhetoric,” said Mr Miliband, adding: “When small things don’t get done, then people don’t believe the big things will get done”
• Every political campaign “needs an argument rather than an assertion”: Mr Miliband argued that it is critical for politicians to take their opponents’ stance seriously, or risk weakening their own
• Communication “is the essence of politics”: societies, even repressive ones, are more open than ever, and good communications is critical, said Mr Miliband. He averred that debate and conflict are good, as they stimulate strong solutions – often better than if parties were in total agreement
• Legislation “means nothing unless you have a coalition to support it”: in other words, democracy rests on the coalition of government leadership, business innovation and mass mobilisation. Too much emphasis is placed on government policymaking, and too little on this relationship
• Leadership: someone once told him, Mr Miliband said, that “leadership is the stories that people tell about you” – how they express their perception of one. Leadership is about learning to listen, and “it’s also about doing what you say”

Democratic politics is “a tough and brutal game” – but it needs the participation of all sectors of society, or it will fail, Mr Miliband argued.

In thanking Mr Miliband for his participation in the dialogue, Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory CEO Achmat Dangor stated that he was guided by the ideas of two South Africans.

The late Steve Biko had pointed out that Black Consciousness was not an end in itself, but a path to something else; and Madiba himself had said of dialogues such as this one: “What you have to do is bring together people who disagree.”

Facing the largely youthful audience, Mr Dangor concluded: “It’s in your hands – remember that.”