At MILLENNIFEST Cardiff we heard Welsh Assembly member David Melding’s views on how democracy could change to be more participative, and the role of millennials in disrupting and regenerating democracy. Common Vision interviewed him after his speech to find out more about how millennials can revitalise excitement around democracy and democratic process.
Hi David! So first, tell us a bit about what sorts of experiences have shaped how you see politics?
I was born in 1962 and so it was around 30 years ago that I was the age that millennials are today. And those years, the late 1980s, were also the most remarkable years in my life in terms of politics. I lived my life up to that point, most of my youth, thinking that the cold war was just going to carry on and that nuclear annihilation was a real possibility. Then 1989 came along and everything changed, it was a moment of utter joy and promise. Not all the promise was delivered, but it did show me that change can and does happen even at quite a fundamental level.
What opportunities do you think the millennial generation has to influence change?
I think we need to reshape democracy and that is going to principally fall to the millennial generation, who are already doing it. Millennials should see themselves not only as politically engaged citizens but as leaders. Why wait till tomorrow when there’s a lot that needs to be sorted out now? My generation haven’t done the greatest job at doing that in some respects.
What do you think could be done to renew democracy?
I think we need an excitement about democracy. Democracy first became a real idea in the 19th century and at the time, the political elite mostly thought it was absolutely terrifying and would destroy society, this idea that people could vote for their leaders and not just receive political rulers from some higher body! However, we seem to be stuck in the 19th century in the sense that we go to elections, turn out vote for our candidate and then we wait four or five years to pass judgement on them, kick them out or rehire them. This form of representative democracy is all centred in the chamber, the council, and revolves around political battles. I think we need to look way beyond that and think about participatory democracy. We still need our institutions to do a lot of the heavy lifting with the ideas that come forward as most of them are not ready to become public policy but the power in people’s ideas is where we need to draw more inspiration and vision from.
I also think democracy has a remarkable potential for change. Change can be highly disruptive, I think Brexit can be looked at as a very disruptive act which highlighted that our democracy isn’t as fair as it needs to be and I think a lot of people voted on those grounds rather than on a technical level. But democracy is meant to be disruptive: look at our history and just amazing things have happened in the last 100 years, women’s suffrage, the welfare state, acceptance that the protection of property cannot be a primary good in society, but rather the promotion of wellbeing, the UN Convention on Human Rights. All these things come from people’s own ideas permeating through the political system. Democracy has this incredible ability to transform itself and needs to be valued more than it is sometimes now.
So, how do we address the democratic deficit and encourage citizens to be more engaged?
In the industrial age, what you did as a job has been the central component of an individual’s life: where your sense of worth and place in society came from. In today’s world, especially given the changing patterns of work, we need to concentrate on citizenship. It’s not enough just to vote or express your opinion on an issue. Citizenship should be a central feature of our lives and we need to be much more imaginative in what we do. I think it’s our responsibility as citizens to look at what we can do for others and the part we can each play in constructing and strengthening our democratic way of life.
I’m a great admirer of the American political thinker Robert Dahl who argued that you need people’s assemblies at the heart of democracies. I would have a certain number of politicians elected by random ballot in the same way as jury duty, or have a second chamber which concentrates on specific social issues, even if these assemblies are temporary or issues-based.