February 12, 2024

Democracy Beyond the Ballot Box

by Adam Milne, Carnegie UK

As my colleague has highlighted, 2024 is understandably being heralded as a blockbuster year for democracy, with more than 2bn people voting in elections in over 50 countries around the world. However, there is a growing debate that democracy needs to evolve and that ‘peak democracy’ cannot be voting every 4 or 5 years. When democracy no longer delivers the basics of what you need to live your life then people start to look elsewhere including more authoritarian leaders and forms of government. 

The polls are predicting a political shift to the right across many parts of Europe in the upcoming EU elections. There is also a trend suggesting that whole generations are left feeling alienated by current democratic institutions and processes. Our Life in the UK research lays bare the extent of the disconnect between the people and our democratic institutions: 

  • 73% of people in the UK feel that they cannot influence decisions affecting the UK as a whole 
  • 56% of people in the UK feel that they are unable to influence decisions at a local level 

When there are gaps between political rhetoric and the reality faced by people, fissures can come to the surface, creating distance between the public and their trust in democracy. 

Democracy can begin to address issues of trust by providing more meaningful opportunities to increase peoples’ Democratic Wellbeing i.e. by having more say and input into the democratic process and the decisions that affect our lives. We have been exploring this through our Engaging Democracy programme of work. This work looks at a variety of ways to get more people involved in democracy and to better understand how they can bring about change and make a difference to policy and decision making.  

We brought together people that have taken part in, for example, citizens assemblies/panels/juries in Scotland to understand their views and experiences of these events. We also reached out to those that commissioned, designed and facilitated these same events to understand their perspectives and to ultimately find out more about how these events brought about change. I’m excited to be sharing our learning on this in the coming weeks. 

What is clear from our Engaging Democracy work so far is that people take their involvement very seriously, find the process to be largely rewarding and that they want their time, effort and input to mean something. The same will be true for casting a vote in an election. However, elections alone will not restore trust in democracy. 

Democracy needs to evolve by providing more active opportunities for people to have their say and to mean more than a vote at the ballot box. 

Democracy needs to find ways of being more engaging and it needs to engage us more than every 4 or 5 years.