Plans for a citizens-led convention on the constitution have taken a major step forward as a result of the successful Assembly for Democracy held in London on November 14 jointly called with Occupy Democracy.
Report by Paul Feldman; photos Peter Arkell
A planning group will meet on December 5 to start the preparations for a convention, with suggestions that it could take place as early as May next year. Everyone present at the “Re-Imagine” Assembly was invited to be part of this process.
John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, who was unable to attend the Assembly in the wake of the Paris attacks, said he was sorry he could not be present in person. In a message of solidarity, he pledged: ”I will do all I can to contribute to the success of this important project in the coming months.”
Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, attacked the Tory government’s devolution plans for excluding people from the process and handing over problems without the money to deal with them. She described it as a “stitch-up” between Treasury officials and a few people in Manchester council. Their “new way of doing things is without reference to any one else”. Labour Party members in Sheffield had sent a motion to the council to put the plans to a referendum but this was rejected by Labour and Liberal councillors.Bennett also slammed the present voting system for denying the Green Party a fairer share of seats in Parliament.
She told the Assembly: “We cannot continue as we are. That is true, socially, economically and environmentally. We are in a process of real change in all of society. We have to build something different and a constitutional convention is an important part of this process.”
Stuart White from openDemocracy and Oxford University, spoke of constitutional challenges over Europe, the relationship of different parts of the UK, devolution and human rights.
These were interconnected questions which called for a systematic answer yet the present response was “elite driven and pragmatic”.
White said one way forward was through an assembly of citizens, chosen at random, which deliberates and makes a series of recommendations. The assembly would have some power to set its own agenda but also be responsive to the demands of the wider citizenry.
“We the people need to be in a leading role in solving the problems through a constitutional convention process.”
School student Asha Parkinson, who also performed a saxophone solo during the lunch break, said education should be just as much about the individual as the status of the country yet “our current education system perpetuates inequality”. She denounced the Education secretary’s disparaging of arts subjects.
She criticised present politics for leading to mass abstention at the ballot box. “Politics values Trident over a free high education. This is the politics that says it values human rights yet trades militarily with Saudi Arabia, China and Israel.”
John Hendy QC, who is well known for his expert advocacy in the field of industrial relations law, explained how the government’s Trade Union Bill was a frontal attack on the democratic rights of trade unionists.
“These attacks on the right to strike are not just a bit of trade union bashing. This is existential. They mean to crush trade unionism in this country.”
He explained how the new laws build on six Acts of Parliament against the unions adopted during the Thatcher period. During 13 years of New Labour, “not one iota of those anti-union laws was repealed. And that is the base on which this bill builds.”
Hendy concluded: “The right to collective bargaining without an effective right to strike is no more than a right to collective begging.”
Liz Davies, executive member of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, described the relentless attacks on access to justice by the ConDem coalition and now the Tory government.
This took the form of cutbacks in legal aid in both civil and criminal cases, court charges and restrictions on judicial appeals.
“If people elect for a jury trial at crown court, they are liable to pay a charge for the amount of time taken up in the court system. At crown court, this can amount to £1,200.”
She warned: “We are likely to end up with a two-tier criminal defence system. People who can afford lawyers will get one who spends the appropriate amount of time on their case. With somebody being represented under legal aid, the danger is that they will end up with a call centre approach, with low-paid people going through a tick-box series about information they need know.”
When she first learned of the plan for a citizens convention on the constitution, her first thought was that it was “a bit utopian”. Since then, Labour had elected a new leader on a radical manifesto. “On that basis, anything is possible.”
Paul Feldman, from the Assemblies for Democracy planning group, took a brief look at history. He said today’s constitution had been arrived at through the most unorthodox practices. In the transition from the absolute monarchy to a constitutional one, there was an impasse. This was only resolved through a Convention Parliament that met in 1689 without the monarch. It was worth reflecting on the need for new forms of legitimisation today too.
Facilitator Andy Paice said that working towards constitutional convention should be seen as a creative process, which belonged to everyone. The practice of self-organisation was more powerful than a division between consumers and organisers. Democracy meant evolving to greater inclusiveness and citizen participation.
A series of break-out groups considered the attack on democracy in its different aspects, while the afternoon session took time to discuss how a citizens-led convention on the constitution could work.
Adnan al Sayegh gave a brief recital of poems, including Pages from the Biography of an Exile. His evocation of the life of a refugee, forced to flee his native Iraq due to his condemnation of war and dictatorship, drew a warm response.
Greetings were delivered from Assemblies for Democracy in Manchester, Glasgow, Swansea, Huddersfield and County Wicklow, Ireland.