Julie Timbrell, Assemblies for Democracy full talk on the sovereignty of the people

Democracy for 21st Century, Assemblies for Democracy , 10th May 2016,  6-9pm Committee Room 5, House of Commons, Westminster

Assemblies for Democracy is a coalition of democratic groups & individuals, which include Occupy, A World to Win, and the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers.

Protest and democracy

My background is occupy, which called for ‘Real Democracy’. Most participants in occupy were driven by either a conviction that we live in an increasingly unequal society; characterised by the growing inequity between the   1 % and the 99%, or that we are facing an ecological collapse. Frequently people were driven by a commitment to both economic and environmental justice, and often by the belief that these issues were linked, and the cause of war and other social injustices.

Occupy identified  the ‘system’ as the problem, and the lack of democracy in particular as a cause for these twin crises . We were collectively convinced that  the solution  to our systemic problems lies in fixing our broken democracy .  The last line of the initial statement issued one of the first assemblies in October 2011 referred to our gathering outside  London Stock Exchange at St Paul’s Cathedral   and the growing global movement,   and declared that this is what democracy looks like. The emphasis was on participative, rather than representative democracy, in part because representative democracy was considered captured by corporations, banks and the 1%, or more accurately the super wealthy 0.1 %.

This call for Real Democracy was mirrored in the gatherings that preceded Occupy, such as the Indignadoes of Spain and the Arab Spring .Occupy saw ourselves as allied to those movements, and to the subsequent waves of people that have gathered in the town squares seeking change through ordinary people coming together. The  ‘Nuit debout’  movement sweeping across France now is one such more recent manifestations of this movement. These night assemblies are a modern echo of the ancient assemblies of Greece, or the folk moots that once used to take place in England, indeed once outside St Paul’s Cross in London. They are a theoretical and practical rejection of the representative political structures as being inadequate, or captured by the elites, or both.

These recent Night Assemblies and Occupy are part of  growing world protest.  A survey of global protest from 2006 to 2013 found that not only is the number of protests increasing, but also the number of protestors. Crowd estimates suggest that 37 events had one million or more protesters; some of those may well be the largest protests in history: there were a 100 million in one protest in India in 2013, and 17 million took to the streets in Egypt in 2013. [i]

There is a video to visualise this here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ji_xKxJdH8

This study found the most frequent protest demand was targeting the ‘Lack of Real Democracy’. Real Democracy was identified as meaning:

  • Policymakers must serve the interest of all citizens (instead of elites);
  • Participatory/direct democracy.


Democracy in decay and changing

These growing waves of protest, and the identification of democracy as the primary problematic, are one indication of mass dissatisfaction with our present political system. Other indicators are a lack of engagement with representative democracy and plummeting trust in public institutions. Fewer than one in ten (9%) trust British politicians “a great deal” or “quite a lot”; only 15% trust parliament a great deal or quite a lot; and only 17% trust British governments in general a great deal or quite a lot. [ii]

There are falling numbers of voters in European and National elections[iii] to parliament. Whereas once political parties enjoyed strong membership, now mainstream party membership is in decline. Compared to other European countries, even with relatively low rates of party membership, membership rates in the UK have declined faster, and have dropped lower, than all other European countries:


Trends in European Party Membership (low membership countries), 1961-2005
Source: Membership of UK Political Parties, House of Commons Research Report SN/SG 5125, 2009, 25

The recent revitalisation of internal democracy in the Labour party has seen a some reversal of this trend,  but this has been contested by the established elite of the Parliamentary Labour Party with its refusal of membership voting rights and a rhetoric that refutes the importance of a participatory grassroots engagement by members. The  resurgence of membership  has been widely treated with suspicion at best and outright hostility  at worst.

Figures for trust and participation in UK democracy  are even worse  for certain groups , with very low scores for low income, BME groups and young people. The UK democracy is one of the worst performers in the developed world for political participation, particularly for disadvantaged groups [iv]

The present system, with its emphasis on parliamentary democracy and political parties, is losing legitimacy fast.  And yet that is the very thing that the political establishment seem to be attempting to prop up: the recent government declaration of British Values defined democracy as ‘Parliamentary Democracy’, and opposition to this as extremism.  How these values were derived is unclear – but they certainly were not arrived at through extensive democratic deliberation or public participation.

While engagement in parliamentary democracy is falling away, there has been an increase in membership and engagement with both protest and civil society. The recent referenda over Scotland the EU has seen very high levels of participation in the vote and in debate, and the opportunity to use the parliament website to petition for debates is well used.  People are engaging in voting and direct democracy when they think it can really make a difference, and with social and political issues via other means. The Power Inquiry [v]  found that very large numbers of citizens are engaged in community and charity work outside of politics. There is also clear evidence that involvement in pressure politics, such as signing petitions, supporting consumer boycotts, joining campaign groups, has been growing significantly for many years. In addition, research shows that interest in ‘political issues’ is high.[vi]

Why democracy?

The evidence is that people are calling for better democracy through both protest on the street and by increasing engagement in civil society and direct democracy.   But are more democratic societies better? Certainly there is a correlation between wellbeing and healthier democracies. More democratic societies tend to both more equal and better at ecological stewardship. If the goals of social movements are related to reversing economic inequity, and preventing ecological collapse then people’s focus on democracy as the best route to achieving these aims does indeed look like an effective strategy.

Democracy: The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy index map for 2012, with greener colours representing more democratic countries.


Democracy: The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy index map for 2012, with greener colours representing more democratic countries.


What is democracy?

The word democracy comes from ancient Greek δημοκρατία (dēmokratiā), which combines dēmos, the “people”, with kratos, meaning “rule”, “power” or “strength”. Put together, the literal denotation of democracy is “rule by the people”, culminating in a popular form of government. The term was coined in the 5th century BCE to denote the political systems then existing in Greek city-states, notably Athens; the term is an antonym to ἀριστοκρατία (aristokratia) “rule of an elite”, which the people of Greece managed to overthrow, then if not more recently.

Democracy is not a synonym for elected representative, or parliamentary democracy. In fact in Greece democracy was practiced largely through a combination of citizens directly taking decisions via popular assemblies, and via sortition or Demarchy, with the use of lots to fill judicial, executive or administrative functions.  Our country dose not just rely on parliamentary democracy: our judicial system uses Sortition to appoint juries; Referendum are a form of Direct Democracy , as are the recently introduced right to raise issues in parliament via petitions. Other common forms of democracy are Delegate  democracy , often used by unions and the Spanish anarchist tradition;  Participatory democracy, where  citizens are consulted, engaged or co-design services, particularly those  that directly effect them and Economic democracy, which  takes the form of  social enterprises, cooperatives,  food sovereignty  (La Via Campesina), and Commoning. Other forms of emerging democracy are Holacracy and Sociocracy, systems of governance with an organizational structure based on cybernetic principles.

Constitutional change and democracy

Assemblies for Democracy is calling for a citizen led constitutional assembly to develop a Democracy for the 21st Century. This is not just about the process of democracy, but also to consider the constitution as a whole.

A constitution can be defined many ways. Aristotle (b. 384 – d. 322 BCE), said the constitution is the   “the way of life” of the citizens, analogous to the soul of an organism. A body has a constitution.  Political constitutions are usually written documents, but the UK has an uncodified constitution, which is a type of constitution where the fundamental rules often take the form of customs, usage, precedent and a variety of statutes and legal instruments.

A constitution will usually set out how decisions are made using a variety of democratic processes, but it is also about how power is distributed and the goals and values of a system.  The importance of goals and values within a constitution cannot be overlooked or downplayed.  System theorists, such as Donella Meadows, argue that is changing the culture, values and goal of the system that can make the greatest change: and changing these offers the biggest leverage point. [vii]

The British constitution

So what constitution system do we live under in this country?  While our country is popularly referred to as a democracy it is actually formally described in text books as a Constitutional Monarchy, and I think this is far more accurate. Whilst elected party political representatives have the dominant role in government,  power also still remains in the hands of the  still feudal House of Lords , and of course the Monarchy. However it is hard to be clear about how power is exercised, and who actually make decisions and for whose benefit, given our unwritten constitution. It is even more difficult to identify the goal of the system. Certainly the emphasis in the majority of the major parties and commentators:  the governing class,  is on ‘growth’ or profit as the ultimate goal of the system and this is arguably the implicit goal of our current system, or constitution.  This implicit goal is the target of one of the most common banners on display in countless protests:  People and Planet, not Profit.

Our British constitutional documents are on the whole fairly circumspect about values, though the Confirmation of Charters preamble to the Magna Carta and Charter of the Forest refer to these being granted for the good our souls, and our successors. Aristotle claimed the good life, or happiness, is the proper end goal of a constitution. The European Convention of Human Rights does refer to values in its affirmation of freedoms and the granting of various liberal and social rights. However in practice the ‘right to property’ and contract law often seems to trumps all other social rights in law, in large part because of the common law tradition has been developed by a privileged judiciary. [viii]

Why constitutional change?

A constitutional document sets the frame for society, it is the law of laws, defines the goals of a system, sets out how we are governed, the process by which decisions are made, and decides the appointment and distribution of power. Our constitution’s partial democracy has been found wanting in its ability to now reflect the will of the people. The criticism of the concentration of wealth and power in the 1 % points out that power is now held by fewer and fewer people; that power is not distributed equitably and that is to the detriment of the many – the 99 %. The implicit goal of the system: profit and growth, rather than people and planet, have also been identified as the cause many of our systemic problems.

Constitutional change and social movements

Constitutional change can appear removed from popular protests, and as a dry academic subject, and not able to generate popular momentum. Certainly making constitutional change relevant is a challenge. However there is a precedent for making this a popular movement:  most historic social movements have demanded democratic changes which have culminated in constitutional changes. Indeed most of our constitutional documents are a result of social movements.

The Magna Carta and its companion treaty the Charter of the Forest arose from protests from the barons and common people against the King and his Sheriffs on such matters such as arbitrary and cruel  punishment; the imposition of taxes without common consent and for the common profit;  and the enclosure of the commons. During the English Revolution, also known as the Civil War, the Levellers and New Model Army agitators helped constrain the power of the Monarchy and ensure regular elections to parliament, and this was codified in the Bill of Rights. The Leveller’s more radical calls for universal suffrage would need to wait for the Chartists and Suffragettes, who eventually paved the way for Universal Suffrage. The rise of socialism, and the fight against fascism, resulted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the better securing of our liberal and social rights.

More recently Iceland’s Pots and Pans Revolution turned to constitutional change as a way of permanently founding a better democracy on a new constitution and preventing another financial crisis.  Following the 2008 financial collapse of the banks Iceland’s people rose up. Bankers were jailed and the government forgave the debts of the people (mortgages) rather than just bailing out the banks. There was also a significant and on-going social movement for democratic and constitutional change.  Democracy campaigners were able to successfully push for a citizen led constitutional convention. This resulted in a new fully articulated constitution, which was endorsed by the people via a referendum. It contained many clauses that would help to deal with financial crimes, inequity and ecological collapse, including articles granting rights to information and for natural resources to be held in stewardship for the nation. Whilst this constitution was not adopted by the parliament, the signs are good that this initiative will ultimately result in change: Iceland’s Pirate party are leading in the polls and have said they will implement the draft constitution, if they are voted into power.

A citizen led constitutional convention that affirms to principle of power resting with the people

Assemblies for Democracy are championing a citizen led constitutional convention because we need a process whereby ordinary people can devise a constitution that is in the interests of the people. A process that is led by parliamentarians is very unlikely to be able to tackle our current democratic deficit, the decay of representative democracy, or the concentration of power in the 1%, given all the vested interests involved.

Assemblies for Democracy held a Re-Imagining Democracy event in March 2015 to explore citizens’ convention and following this affirmed the democratic principle of power resting with the people. This reflects the true meaning of democracy – the will of the people. Starting with this principle effects decisions about the design of a constitutional convention: it necessities the people being able to set the agenda, participate in the decision making process, and ultimately the people deciding its outcome.

The design of such a process offers us an opportunity to develop a prefiguarative democratic process that will hopefully lead to a better the democracy, fit for the 21st century. The Magna Carta, our first modern constitutional document, declared at the beginning that this was agreed by ‘common assent of all the realm’. Nowadays a new constitutional agreement cannot be decided by a gathering in a meadow. Instead we need to use modern methods of democratic of deliberation and decision making that will enable us to arrive at a new common agreement, by and for the people, which is able to hold the different constituents together for the common good.


[i] World Protests 2006-2013. Isabel Ortiz, Sara Burke, Mohamed Berrada, Hernan Cortes Saenz

Initiative for Policy Dialogue


[ii] British Social Attitudes report published in 2012


[iii] Turnout for both local and national elections has experienced a steep decline. The General Election of 1950 saw a turnout of 83.9 per cent, yet figures have dropped dramatically, particularly after 1997, sinking to an all-time low of 59.4 per cent in 2001 and only recovering slightly to reach 61.3 per cent in 2005. After 1998’s historic low of 28 per cent, turnout in local elections has hovered just above the 30 per cent mark, with some wards recording figures as low as 12 per cent.

Department for Communities and Local Government

Engaging Behaviour: Behavioural economics and citizen engagement 2011


[iv]“ In a global survey ranking countries according to electoral turnout, the political inclusion of disadvantaged or minority groups, membership of political parties, citizens’ stated interest in – and active engagement with – politics and political protest, and the efforts made by public institutions to promote political participation, the UK was found to have the lowest levels of political participation in the developed world.10The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy 2008 (London: Economist Intelligence Unit, 2008).


[v] Power to the People: an independent inquiry into Britain’s democracy 2006 http://www.jrrt.org.uk/publications/power-people-independent-inquiry-britains-democracy-full-report

[vi] A survey found that whilst just 3 per cent of respondents had paid a membership fee to a political party, 37 per cent who had donated money to a charity or campaigning organisation, many of which are increasingly coordinated online.  Engaging Behaviour: Behavioural economics and citizen engagement Department for Communities and Local Government 2011

[vii] Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System . By Donella Meadows http://donellameadows.org/archives/leverage-points-places-to-intervene-in-a-system/

[viii] See Conor Gearty https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/2014/11/13/conor-gearty-on-fantasy-island-british-politics-english-judges-and-the-european-convention-on-human-rights/

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