Strengthening democracy and participation: routes to re-connection and engagement – a provocation

Catherine Durose

This post is based on a provocation which I posed at INLOGOV’s recent Summer Symposium. It is an attempt to move on the conversation about engagement between local government, other public institutions, citizens and communities.

It is unlikely that anyone attending the Symposium – or indeed, probably reading the INLOGOV blog – has not had a conversation about either the desire or difficulty of re-connecting government and other public institutions with local communities and citizens. We may agree that this is an important conversation to have, but why is it one that we keep having? Why despite years of this issue being high on the policy agenda and the subject of so much academic research, why does it feel like little has changed?

A common response is that this lack of change is the fault of citizens: there is little appetite from citizens to engage, they are apathetic.

What is often neglected, is that apathy (which we could question in and of itself) is generative, it is a response to opportunities to participate which are often what Arnstein calls ‘empty rituals’ but it is also caused by a repeated undermining of citizens’ sense of agency and efficacy: as one activist said to me recently, ‘we felt we were being done to, over and over again’.

The reason that many of the attempts to ‘re-connect’ that come from local government feel stale, over- and misused, cynically applied, ineffective, and superficial; is because they often are, it is an appropriate reaction.

So how can we shift the conversation, using the words of Archon Fung, what are the ‘vision and grammar’ of alternative ways to re-connect: what are the principles and design that may move the conversation on a different way?

We may want to think about:


  • Principles: how do we see democracy and accountability working in localism, it is about building consensus or allowing space for contesting power and creating alternatives? What are the underlying values that we are seeking to advance? What kind of world do we want to create?


  • Intermediaries (boundary spanners, civic entrepreneurs, community organisers, deliberative practitioners, active citizens, 21st century public servants): who are those individuals who are able to build ‘vital coalitions’ to make things happen and get things done in neighbourhoods and communities? How can we support and facilitate their work?
  • Organisational change: How can we challenge a culture in local government that often struggles to let go, where officers and members thinks they’re in charge, second guesses, patronises the public, but also to find a starting point for a conversation that resonates with people?
  • Institutional design: What are the democratic potentialities in institutional design? Do we need to start with a perfect design or can we work it out along the way? Can we mix, match and merge?
  • Tools: Can a different medium be a different message? Can using spatial or visualisation tools, geo-apps help to change the parameters of the conversation and let citizens shout a little louder?

How can we use these different ideas to go from the inspiring, yet marginal, to the ‘new normal’?

Related blogs from the Summer Symposium can be read here


duroseDr Catherine Durose is Senior Lecturer in INLOGOV and Director of Research for the SChool of Government and Society at the University of Birmingham.  She is co-author of the forthcoming book, ‘Re-thinking public policy: why co-production matters?’ for Policy Press.




The prospects for a dramatically more representative Parliament post 2015 are bleak

Catherine Durose, Liz Richardson, Ryan Combs, Francesca Gains and Christina Eason

Whilst the likely outcome of the next election maybe still far too close to call, one feature of the next Parliament is very predictable.  The 2015 Parliament is likely to remain as deeply unrepresentative of the make-up of the UK population as the current legislature.  Although the 2010 Parliament showed some improvements in diversity, while women represent 51% of the UK population they formed just 22% of MPs; and although the ethnic minority population is 8% the number of ethnic minority MPs is half that at 4%.  Representation by other underrepresented groups: for example people with disabilities or openly LGBT is also less than would be reflective of the makeup of society more generally although this is harder to count.

This poor representation is despite all three main party leaders stating their support for efforts to improve the diversity of representation in Parliament in evidence given at a specially convened Speakers Conference before the last election.  While Lord Hurd has argued recently that greater diversity in political representation is a ludicrously radical demand, the Conference argued that improved diversity would support better policy making as MPs would draw on a wider range of experiences, and could act to enhance the legitimacy of Parliament and encourage greater political engagement.

Our research for the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, conducted just after the election in 2010, set out to explore the barriers to representation from underrepresented groups and to examine the pathways to politics taken by successful politicians from those groups protected by the Equalities Act to see what lessons could be learned.  We gathered primary qualitative data from a purposive sample of 62 national politicians and candidates, some who had been successful, and some who had not managed to achieve selection and/or elected office.  We also heard from around 20 lobby groups for under-represented groups within and outside political parties, and other stakeholder organisations.

In some cases shocking examples of sexist and racist attitudes were reported.  One black candidate was asked whether she was ‘one of them happy-clappy churchgoers’. One candidate recounted the experience of a local party member ‘hitting me on the bottom and asking me what a nice girl like me is doing in the Labour Party.’  A female ethnic minority candidate expressed her perception of the “double whammy” of discrimination she faced.  This also ran the risk of reducing support for diverse candidates.  In one example, other women in a candidate’s party assumed that she would get support from ethnic minorities in the party, but the other minority members were: “reluctant to support me because I am female and they are all men”.  Other attitudes towards women were less overtly expressed but still exclusionary. Women in politics perceived themselves as facing heightened expectations to justify their presence in a way that men did not. Yet, women were not taken seriously or seen to have the gravitas of male politicians.

While possibly horrifying, these might be familiar complaints about lingering outmoded common-or-garden prejudice.  However, beyond this, our analysis, published in Parliamentary Affairs, identified a systemic and institutional problem with local party ‘selectorates’.  A key issue mentioned by those we spoke to was the critical veto role played by the local selectorates, the local party activists who are responsible for selecting candidates.   Women and ethnic minorities reported facing ‘selector hostility’ struggling to secure the nomination for winnable seats as local party elites look for so-called ‘archetypal’ candidates.  The archetypal candidate reflects selectors’ own characteristics, but more importantly, those of previously successful candidates.  It is partly based on assumptions about electoral risk, and who different parts of the electorate will be prepared to vote for.  Candidates and sitting politicians saw this attitude reflected in the suggestions put to them to ‘have a go’ in ‘unwinnable’ seats. Analysis by Maria Sobolewska at the University of Manchester  has shown that, pre 2010, the Liberal Democrats selected the overwhelming proportion of their minority candidates in highly ethnic diverse seats, most of which were unwinnable and the Conservatives selected more than half of their minority candidates into hopeless seats.  The Labour Party selected the highest proportion of ethnic minority candidates for safe and winnable seats.

In our research, we argue that where candidates from under-represented groups have been successful, this is often because they were ‘acceptably different’ and shared particular ‘pathways’ into national politics which mitigated against the perceived electoral disadvantages of being from an underrepresented or  minority group.  One younger, male, ethnic minority politician highlighted how other aspects of his identity were able to make his ethnicity ‘acceptable ‘I think my age and colour ticked certain boxes and ex-military, public school boy ticked others’.  For women, this could take the form of being ‘one of the boys’, as explained by one respondent: “It’s how you fit in so they don’t think you’re a girl […] Once one of my colleagues described me as one of the boys, I think he meant it as a compliment but I’m not sure that it is.”  Such candidates are also likely to follow a pathway into politics which emphasises university education and a ‘politics facilitating’ or an increasingly  prominent ‘professional politics’ route.  Many of the new female or ethnic minority MPs elected in 2010 had experience in national politics as advisers, or lobbyists.  Of the 27 ethnic minority MPs, at least ten have legal backgrounds (37%).

Whilst this new type of pathway into politics can help to overcome selector hostility if candidates are filtered both through local selectorates and through professional pathways, then a key policy question in increasing diversity in representation becomes how to open up politics.  One of our interviewees said “When I was trying to become a Parliamentary candidate I was asked on more than one occasion what my qualifications were and they meant academic qualifications. One woman even said it was a real shame because one of the other candidates was a lawyer and another one had a PhD and although I seemed like a really nice woman I wasn’t really [of] their calibre”.

Although the Labour Party is persisting with the unpopular but effective policy of making 50% of its target seats selected from all women shortlists, this willingness for the party elites and the party machinery to work with local selectorates to overcome selector hostility is not found elsewhere.  Although David Cameron is clearly committed to wider diversity, Conservative members are deeply resistant to either interference from the national party or equality measures, as highlighted by recent media reports, and supported by other research by Sarah Childs and Paul Webb. And the Liberal Democrats are also struggling to take any positive measures, with the ongoing furore over sexual harassment claims still making headlines.

Without tougher efforts by all parties to address their own openness, attitudes and ‘selectorates’, the portents for the 2015 Parliament being radically more representative than 2010 do not look good.

This blog first appeared on Democratic Audit, 27 January 2014


Dr Catherine Durose is Senior Lecturer and Director of Research in the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham and works with the Public Services Academy.


Dr Liz Richardson is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Manchester, and a Visiting Fellow in the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE) at  London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).  Her previous roles include Co-ordinator of LSE Housing at the LSE. Liz is co-editor of the journal, Local Government Studies.  She is also a Director of a community charity, the National Communities Resource Centre.


Ryan Combs is a Research Associate at Centre for Primary Care, Institute of Population Health at the University of Manchester.


Francesca Gains is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of Manchester. Before entering academia she worked in local government and the probation service, and has both government funded and Parliamentary research experience. Her research agenda explores the relationship between political management arrangements and policy outcomes.

Christina Eason has a PhD from the University of Manchester’s School of Social Sciences and has research interests in British politics, gender, women, representation, and institutions.