The challenge of enhancing the ‘democratic anchorage’ of partnerships has become a central concern in policy studies. Radical reform proposals designed to level the deliberative playing field include community veto powers and the appointment of neutral arbiters. Welcome as they would be, however, it is questionable whether such reforms would overcome power asymmetries in the partnership arena. A study of the local politics of social inclusion in two UK cities, Dundee and Hull, suggests that managerialism, driven by national governments, is eroding the prospects for partnership democratisation. But more significantly for the reformist agenda, public managers and community activists think in incompatible frames about the role of partnerships and in ways that are not understood by the other party. Non-communication undermines the prospects for an equitable democratic consensus. Insights from Bourdieu suggest that even in environments more favourable to equitable democratic discourse than those in Dundee and Hull, subtle manifestations of power in culture, discourse and bearing would undermine the potential for a Habermasian consensus between radically unequal actors. In a radical departure from the network governance paradigm, it is therefore argued that empowerment may depend less on enhanced network democracy than on strong independent community organisation capable of acting separately and coercively against governing institutions and elites – an exit-action strategy. These preliminary conclusions point to a substantial research agenda on the politics of the state–civil society nexus.