Reanimating Participatory Democracy on the Left of British Politics

Professor Marc Stears's work on communitarian and democratic politics has helped to shape the Labour Party's framework for a new centre-left politics.

From a focus on how political theory relates to real politics, Professor Marc Stears has moved into politics itself as Chief Speechwriter to Labour Leader Ed Miliband.

Stears's research, funded by a Leverhulme Research Fellowship Award, addresses widespread concerns that modern political parties are disconnected from traditions of democratic participation. His research subsequently informed the practical steps taken by the UK Labour Party to reform its organizational structures and to try to increase participation by its grassroots.

Since joining DPIR in 2002, Stears's work has focused on democratic participation in theory and practice. His book, Demanding Democracy: American Radicals in Search of a New Politics, sought to recover ideas from twentieth century American politics and use them to reenergise democratic activism today. The book tracked the moral and tactical ideas (and the successes and failures) of a host of progressives, trade unionists, civil rights campaigners, and New Left movements.

He has further developed these ideas through his contributions to the 'new realism' in political theory. As the name suggests, new realists advocate a political theory attuned to political reality, and one oriented by interpretations of history and lived experience rather than the abstract principles of much contemporary political philosophy.

This line of thinking led to an increasing focus on contemporary British politics. In 2010, he was invited by Graeme Cooke and James Purnell to participate in a research project on democratic renewal at the think tank Demos. Those discussions led to a collaboration with the scholar and community activist Maurice Glasman and his colleagues. Stears's work led to a number of further seminar and workshop invitations and then eventually to a more formal connection with the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), one of Britain's foremost centre-left think tanks. As the effective 'academic in residence' at IPPR, he guided the think thank's project work on housing policy, cultural integration, the living wage, responsible business practices, and social security policy. He also published (through IPPR) the short book, Everyday Democracy, which crystallised insights from earlier research and argued that we best strengthen democracy by empowering people and communities to influence policymaking, especially through decentralisation of power and shoring up everyday forms of participation.

Stears's scholarly work on real politics eventually resulted in an immersion in politics itself. He helped convene a series of seminars on policymaking and party organisation, which produced an influential collection, The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox, now a cornerstone of what is known as the Blue Labour tradition. In the first month after publication, it was downloaded many thousands of times and became a rallying point for discussions about where the British Labour Party was heading after its 2010 election loss. Stears's role was formalised in May 2013 when he was appointed Chief Speechwriter to the Leader of the Opposition until the next general election.

Stears has also been involved in the Labour Party's internal reforms, including its attempts to renew community-based organisation, grass-roots activism, and other more participatory approaches to policymaking and implementation. He collaborated with leading community organiser Arnie Graf to bolster these ideals through his work on The Collins Review: Building a One Nation Labour Party, a report on the structure of Labour Party membership announced by Ed Miliband in July 2013.

Further reading:

Everyday Democracy: Taking Centre-Left Politics Beyond State and Market, Marc Stears IPPR 2011

The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox. The Oxford London Seminars 2010-2011.

Active Equality: A Democratic Agenda for the British Left in James Purnell and Graeme Cooke (ed.), We Mean Power: Ideas For the Future of the Left (London: Demos, 2010)



Marc Stears