Tuesday 20 January marked the 750th anniversary of England’s first parliament, an occasion that the BBC deemed notable enough – and relevant enough – for a full day of opinion articles, live tweeting, talking heads and themed debates.

Among the sound bites and assembled panel audiences of social scientists stroking their chins while musing about ideologies in abstract, one theme that festered in the recycled compost was the political hot cake that is the media bubble and how news and views are reported through its all-seeing eyes and all-telling cakehole. As one Democracy and Technology panellist, the social media head of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party, Arvind Gupta, said, “Over-dependence on certain tools or platforms can influence democracy. It’s a worry. It gives some companies a lot of control over our thinking.” The #BBCDemocracyDay may have had noble intentions, but its considered approach was an exception rather than the sensationalist norm.

In an example of the elite political media bubble bloating to doorway-filling proportions, the planned election broadcasts due later this year have stirred a storm in a teacup. In a nutshell, the blueprint revealed last year included wildcard Tory converts UKIP on the ITV leg of its three televised battles of personality (or lack thereof), wit and words. This inclusion prompted questions of democratic legitimacy. Like him or loathe him, UKIP leader Nigel Farage draws the crowds with his clowning around and provocative rhetoric, but all this becomes more serious the more he’s awarded space on the prime time soap box. David Cameron’s objected to this in naturally self-serving fashion, unwilling to be flanked by UKIP during a debate unless Labour will also be flanked by a potential vote haemorrhaging threat, the resurgent Green Party, whose membership is now greater than UKIP’s. And so it has come to pass, the seven-way debate proffered and likely to be accepted (barring a possible inclusion of a Northern Irish rep to further dilute the conversation). Will information stave off entertainment?

The message within all this posturing is one of fairly limited democracy and a significant distance away from achieving anything practical. And the question remains: are they encouraging free, democratic thinking or merely providing an evening of car crash TV?

So, what can we do about it? This month in Manchester there are options both inside and outside the political establishment to get involved with the democratic process in a more worthwhile way.

Manchester City Council has turned to its constituents for opinions on how to allocate their depleted funds from 2015 to 2017. Given that last year’s council elections saw a City Centre Ward turnout of 17.2%, which amounted to 2,371 votes, greater political engagement could be fairly high on the city’s resolutions list for 2015.

As it is, there’s an immediate opportunity. The pan-Labour Council’s current agenda has been to extend its democratic arm to its constituents to work out where best to aim the austerity crosshairs when shooting down existing public projects and services mid-flight. Having made £250m worth of cuts between 2011 and 2015, there is now another £55.24m due for the period between 2015 and 2016. Among those lined up against the wall for the next round of deletion, we have the umbrella headings of Children and Families, Growth and Neighbourhoods, and The Corporate Core. As if we needed reminding of the ‘we’re all in this together’ predicament, the Council adds that, “Between 2010/11 and 2015/16 Manchester has experienced the eighth biggest cut per resident to its spending power out of all councils in England – this equates to £311.94 less per head.” Presumably this has been appeased by the future promises within the Devo Manc package, which, we’re told, will make everything better again as long as we frugally sit tight for the next two years while another PFI building scheme raids Manchester’s public purse and skyline.

Suppositions aside, does seeking democratic endorsement and justification for policies signal an age of increased openness, or merely drawing a concept of consensus into its methods of jurisdiction? Could the Council be passing the buck with a tactic devised to relay a perverse ownership onto the enforced cuts? Either way, you have until Wednesday 18 February to register your opinion.

Outside of the halls of power, February sees two collections of alternative thinking groups staging events in Manchester.

First up, across the weekend of 7-8 February the No Dash For Gas group will set up camp at MERCi in Ancoats, home to other socially responsible groups and charities such as Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The No Dash For Gas activist group is most famous for scaling West Burton power station in November 2012 to protest CO₂ emissions and their Reclaim the Power National Gathering will involve discussion and planning around their annual summer camp and December’s UN COP21 Climate Change Conference.

A citizen-focused, rather than corporate-led, brand of journalism would help. This is something being promoted by the organisers of Real Media, whose event on 28 February at the Friends’ Meeting House on Mount Street gathers together independent media outlets, including Red Pepper, New Internationalist, Open Democracy, Salford Star, Manchester Mule and the documentarian John Pilger, for a day of workshops, speakers, discussion and networking.

Manchester City Council – Have Your Say
Reclaim the Power, National Gathering
Real Media Gathering

Ian Pennington