Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Illusion Of Participation

It's hard to know if the past few days have been good or not so good for the citizens and their participation. What used to just be referred to as "turnout" must now be styled in this way. Taking part is so much more active than turning out. And, as is so often said, it's not the winning that matters but the taking part. Ask the town hall in Palma.

The citizens, those strewn across the whole of Spain, roused themselves sufficiently to put some five per cent on the election participation percentage. Was this a reflection of the new participative age? No, but it may well have reflected the fact that there were some other lots to vote for and that the citizens were being given the opportunity to vote no to the old lots. New parties should be formed for all elections might be the message.

There was, though, an altogether more important exercise in participation. The citizens of Palma were deciding the fate of the terraces on the Born. For seven long days the voting lasted, following several long weeks of arguments given ample coverage in the media. And what happened? Under five per cent of the citizens cared enough to vote. Was this a triumph for direct democratic involvement?

Alfonso Robledo, the chap who's head of Mallorca's restaurants' association, was probably wetting himself laughing at the same time as he was congratulating the town hall for having organised the citizens' consultation. Around 3.2% of the citizenry was in favour of Born terraces, but this 3.2% was about four-fifths of those who had been bothered to take a second (less than that probably) to register their online preference in the terraces' favour. The Born was not to be Born free of terraces. All hail citizen democracy!

Alfonso intimated that the turnout, sorry participation, had been high, when of course he knew full well that it hadn't been anything of the sort. He was saying this, one fancies, to rub salt into town hall wounds, while at the same time careful to lavish it with praise. It had been, he suggested, difficult to get the man in the street to vote on a specific issue like the terraces. In other words, what he really meant was that the participation had been minimal - which it was - and that there was no surprise that it had been. Man in the street, man on the Clapham omnibus, man on the Palma bus lines that permit dogs (here has to be another subject for citizen democratic voting): they were all wondering why they were being asked the question. Was it not within the wit of elected politicians and business representatives to sort this out themselves? Sensibly, maturely, pragmatically.

If, as I have suggested previously, the terrace issue was all a ruse for the town hall to engage in a pilot scheme for online citizen decision-making, then it certainly didn't choose wisely. There again, perhaps it was aware that the citizens would let it off the hook. Having dug a frankly ludicrously large pit over a comparatively inconsequential issue, it didn't want to be buried by having to decide for itself, when all sense and public sentiment appeared to be weighed against it.

Maybe it had in fact been a different ruse. Act tough and display preservationist credentials, and then get the citizens to show they aren't nearly as fussed. Don't blame us, the citizens have spoken, all under five per cent of them. Nevertheless, noting the looks of three town hall sorts hauled before the media to announce the "landslide victory" in favour of the terraces, the town hall was far from pleased. Glum, glummer, glummest.

Instinctively drawn to such public involvement as I am, it has to be conceded (and frankly should be by politicians) that the vast majority is not. Perhaps it needs time and education to convert the masses to involving themselves. Or perhaps it requires genuinely significant questions to be posed. Cut taxes by 10%. Yes or no? (And make the outcome legally binding.) The polling website would go into meltdown.

Even for the arch advocates of citizen participation - our good friends in Podemos - there is a gap between philosophy and reality, or so I understand. Its consultations and its citizens' councils amount to comparatively little, so much so that in the heady and insane days of my student politics, the participants wouldn't have constituted a quorum. 

Participation requires, to use an overused word, stakeholders. The world of business struggled with worker indifference towards participation until it started to hand out shares and created profit-sharing schemes. Workers had said you're the managers, your job's to manage; we're workers, our job's to go on strike. But the closeness of a business cannot, despite the rhetoric, be replicated in the vastness of the political machinery. You're the politicians, you sort it out.

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