chapter  2
17 Pages

Citizens, political representation and parliamentary public spheres

This chapter looks closely at the issue of communication between citizens and states. In so doing, it navigates a path between supporters of ‘liberal’, limited, rational choice models of representative democracy and advocates of greater ‘republican’, participatory democracy. Having introduced the participants and parameters of this debate, the chapter then focuses squarely on the output of Jürgen Habermas. Habermas, through an evolving body of works, has come to plot his own alternative path between these two traditions. After introducing Habermas’s original ‘public sphere’ conception (1989 [1962]),

and its influence in the field, the chapter then explains Habermas’s more recent analytical approach. This sets out a quite different description and set of evaluative norms with which to observe political communication in contemporary democracies. In this he describes a ‘centre-periphery’ model, in which multiple public sphere forums formulate and relay opinions from ‘weak’ publics to the parliamentary centre. It is at this centre that such inputs are absorbed and deliberated upon, by ‘strong’ publics and according to public sphere norms, to then be transformed into publicly-legitimated law. A parliament operating in a mature democracy, in effect, is now to be treated as the most significant public sphere component of a linked network of public forums. Such a model places greater emphasis on communication within interest groups and associations in civil society, within the institutions of parliamentary bodies, and the communicative links between them. This, in turn, has strong implications for the way media and communication, operating in democracies, are documented and assessed. The chapter then applies this framework to an investigation of the British

parliamentary public sphere operating at Westminster. The study is presented in two parts. In the first, it concludes that the UK Parliament at Westminster, in several respects, operates rather better according to public sphere norms than the public sphere described in Habermas’s earlier (1989) accounts of eighteenthand nineteenth-century England. However, clearly such a conclusion does not match with general public perceptions of institutional politics. The second part therefore engages with the reasons for this disparity and offers two explanations

for it. The first regards the impeded transfer of that public ‘opinion-and willformation’ from parliament to government. The second relates to the faulty means of ‘critical publicity’ by which the process of governance is relayed back to ordinary citizens via the mediated public sphere. As such, even if the UK Parliament is legitimately linked to, and adequately deliberates on, public ‘opinion-and will-formation’, it fails to transmit that, either upwards to government, or downwards to its citizenry.