General discussion on Alan Renwick’s six questions

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

First general discussion on the first three of Alan Renwick’s six questions:

  1. What is the purpose of this process?
  2. Who is represented in this process?
  3. What is the basic structure of the body or set of bodies that debates the options and makes recommendations?

XXX:  One purpose a constitutional convention could seek to produce is a statement of shared values. There has been the Conservatives putting forward a notion of shared values, ‘British Values,’ but this is something that a constitutional process could devise and set out.

Julie Timbrell (facilitating): In the Iceland model a deliberative assembly of around 980 people set out the values and themes for a later directly elected citizens council to develop a constitution from.

XXX: One of the purposes of a constitution must be to reengage people, particularly   disengaged groups who are not participating in our political process, in particular poor people; people with a low social economic status,   who are particularly disenfranchised. This is where the methodology and the outcome must come together; the devising of a constitutional process must include those who are most disengaged presently.

XXX: Purpose should be creating Real Democracy – either an actual democracy or a better democracy, depending on your view of the current set up. The structures need to change so it does the job of actually representing the people.

XXX: A pre-figurative process – which looks like the country and works like we want the country to work. A stratified sample can ensure that the whole country is represented, and this can be supported by expert witness, observers, evidence givers, and good facilitators. The process will bring in a range of input, but ensure the whole population is represented. Questions over corporate power usurping democracy are important, as are Transparency, Freedom of Information –but these are policy rather than constitutional outcomes.

XXX: Purpose – maximise individual autonomy, as long as not adversely impacting on others autonomy.

Stuart White  : I would like to return to  the democratic principle of power resting with the people  that Julie raised in  her talk  and the unresolved tension between our constitutional self understanding as a country:  a traditional idea of parliamentary sovereignty and the idea of popular sovereignty, which comes from a different philosophical place . What really interests me in a constitutional process is how it relates to that on-going battle between parliamentary and popular sovereignty .Is the process there to affirm the principle of popular ,sovereignty  or is it a mechanism there to be integrated into the normal parliamentary sovereignty – being clear on that has a lot of questions on the design. If you think it is an expression of popular sovereignty then that gives a reason to worry about parliament and a group of politicians choosing one specific issue for the convention to deliberate on , as that would bring the process very much under auspices of parliamentary  sovereignty . But as Alan said if you go for a process that really is an expression of popular sovereignty then you have to open minded to what that process will produce and it may not produce  the list of substantive reforms that many of us would wish to see.

XXX: A question for Alan: when you spoke about experts who wouldn’t be included you included Union or religious, I don’t understand why this would be and who would choose these categories.

Alan Renwick responded:  this is particularly as the last questions is difficult to resolve – who to include of not include. However if you select random citizens , then many will be trade unionist , or parts of other groups.

XXX (response to Alan):  When you spoke earlier you mentioned carers, for example .What criteria do you use to choose people?

Alan:  That goes back to the stratification question and how much is included. The more categories choose then the more complex it becomes. In the Canadian set up they only used gender – and then they stratified on geography, and then they retrofitted for ethnicity. The Irish convention stratified on age and socio-economic status, and possibly one other. You could add trade unions and business, people – but the more categories you add the more complex it becomes. You could argue for Trade Unionists – I don’t have a fixed view, this is however different than having people there who are leading members of trade unions, and are there as representatives.

Neal Lawson: What hasn’t been mentioned yet is the Scottish model which was based on leading members of trade unions,  faith groups, politicians etc. Its was very successful in getting the Scottish Parliament on the agenda and building the political muscle to keep the politicians feet to the fire and continuing to press for its implementation. One possibility would be to hold a shadow convention to do this – with lots of representative organisations with lots of ability to  build political muscles, so I don’t think we should reject that as a model.

XXX: A convention should recommend `a political structure ‘:  most include participative and representative democracy. Representative democracy must be mandated, and the representatives must be answerable to the people who have mandated them. British parliamentary democracy is not longer representative of the people. A convention is surely there to make recommendations, which the people then must consider and decide if acceptable, by a referendum.

Phil England: go back to opening speakers – that to me is why democracy is broken, and this is because of the power of corporations. They are not making decisions for the public good but narrow economic interests – so the purpose of a convention is would be to try and fix this.

XXX There is a groups of organisations that have a similar shared purpose , if we are looking for the purpose of the convention , do we not need a more representation from a wider demographic; to set the purpose?

Julie Timbrell: well that does sometime happen; there are usually stages to the process.

Robbie:  Agree with Phil on the need to tackle the whole issue of corporate power. So we should not restrict the process – not looking a small issues, but the bigger issues. The idea that we should not proceed as we will not hold sway with the political class is a truism, but does not recognise we live in a changing political world. The likes of ordinary people are having more power, this is sweeping around the world, and we should not restrict our ambitions of what can be put on the table of a constitutional convention.

XXX :It seems to me the easiest problem to solve is how to  get a 1000 people to represent the demographic of the population as market research companies can do  this , have done for decades – a bigger problem  is who funds this process . Funding generally for any activity is a problem that nobody has raised – either we are going to go begging to the powers that be : it’s  really nice thing to do ; it will take your power away, will destabilise  the current hierarchy, will bring all sorts of social issues ; change your ownership of land, and so on. I don’t think they will signing up to fund this thing! So crowd funding has some merit – it has been done and  worked for some activity. Understanding certain dynamics – so sovereignty, where does it lie? Parliament or the people? That is a really nice clean crisp question to ask people. A lot of what we have talked about is about trying to invent a better way of doing democracy, that doesn’t appear to exist today. So for example getting a 1000 odd people to do a tick box is one thing that is  relatively easy, but getting a 1000 odd people to do longer term deliberation . Is it an on-going body, dose it replace parliament, is it a one off?  Please answer. The real problem is the deliberation and the prioritisation of issues. What has been echoed around the room is lots of people have a problem – whether this is an economic situation or a social issue, but nothing is getting done, parliament is not representing us. So what data, what information, are parliamentarians receiving to prioritise  issues. But actually parliament is pretty weak itself, is attached to the executive. I can’t answer that question. I have no idea what information the executive and government use to make the decisions it makes, and prioritise the issues it prioritises. I can’t answer those questions. I have no clarity on what the Labour party uses to make its decisions, or the Liberals or the Conservatives. Those processes are not transparent to most people. How we deliberate, what data we use to say that actually terrorism that kills 20 people, compared with the falling down stairs that kills 200 people each year, is more important. How do we come up with the ranking of issues and priorities, for people and the poor, because I think it is all about the poor, and we are all getting poorer because of the current system.  How that happens , is the real academic challenge, I have not seen anyone come with a model .  I read around these issues, but I don’t have time as an academic to study it , but I have not seen a model that even  paints a better picture of a better way of making decisions based on data. I come from a technology and business background, so I am quite practical, but I have not seem a model of what a next democracy would look like.

Julie: We will need to build a social movement, which is one of the objectives of Assemblies for Democracy

XXX: We heard about the EU a little earlier, and we are in the middle of a massive, potentially, constitutional rejigging in referendum. If you go to the TTIP negotiation website on you see a massive 45 page document which sets out the proposals that the EC has put in the investor state dispute issues – the secret  corporate court. It extraordinarily boring, really really dull. And the test the convention has to pass is that you have to say, convincingly, that a 34 year old single mother from Easter Houses, in Glasgow, would be willing to participate in a process that discusses something like that. I think that is hugely difficult part of this, and I think the only thing that drives people to participate in something like that , aside from money , is the fact that their views are really going to matter. For that to happen you need some kind of agreement with a political party, or political parties in general, that what happens in this room matters.  Because with out it you are going to get people that want to talk about the constitution – and actually those are exactly the people you don’t want in the room! So I think you need to do it in small batches, over and over again, to build trust in the process, and to build a sense that this does really matter and people are taking account of them. If you try and do it as a big marquee thing; particularly disconnected from government, I don’t it will get anywhere.


2nd general discussion on the last three of Alan Renwik’s questions:

  • Who can influence the constitution-making body’s deliberations?
  • What are the body’s operational procedures? Including how long it should deliberate for (this is additional).
  • What happens once the constitution-making body has made its recommendations?

XXX: Taking up the point that Frances made, clearly and enlightenly, about the need to start where people are at, during  the last discussion an example was given of resident in a Housing Estate and if they would engage. This example would probably live in Social Housing, as I do.  This is a crucial issue, how do we draw people in who are more excluded, and poorer. One way is to use the ghost of participation in housing associations. There has been a rolling back of the  democratising of social housing , largely driven by housing executives, rather than government, which has meant that the former structures of resident participation : of there  being members and of electing people to the board is being steadily undermined and eroded. However by encouraging people in social housing to get involved we could start to move the ball in the opposite direction and people would start to get an experience of participative democracy  not necessarily in a geographical sense , but in a functional sense: in their housing and other places . I am launching an organisation ‘Make Tenants Matter’ to get that ball rolling.

Corinna: Unfortunately I need to go back to the first part, following on from Alan Renwick’s contribution, that political leaders will not agree to the writing of a whole new constitution, which I don’t disagree with, but isn’t this why the citizens need to do this, because the politicians will not on mass agree with this proposition, although some are possibly taking this on. They will not agree to this as a constitution is about power; it  is about how it is used and the deployment. In our present constitution this is hidden and disguised, and has been for a long time, and this has been acknowledged at points. The impetus has to come from the outside, where power does not lie, from the poor people, from the marginalised, from virtually all of us who do not have power, and that is almost everybody who is not part of controlling a corporation , or the corrupt elite tide up with the tax havens, such as the  Panama papers illustrated . Producing anything less than a full written constitution would not address this. At the moment there is a lack of clarity about where power lies, which is a reason for the lack of engagement in these big constitutional issues, but once this starts to get unravelled, as Frances explained in her examples of recent engagement of the miners, that once people start to make those connections they do understand.  People are very alienated and disempowered. I think we can only do this by addressing both the local issues that oppress people and the bigger picture. When people see that connection then a very powerful knowledge starts to emerge. The point of this process is to do what the politicians cannot do, are unwilling to do, or unable to do as they are not in the position to do this.

Frances: I take Corinna’s point, reflecting on Alan’s talk, however I do think it is unrealistic to expect a convention to produce a whole complete constitution with all the doted Ts and Is . That it is not realistic, but to proceed to produce a statement of values, not just something vague, but a developed a framework is realistic. This framework could then be given to academics, or whatever, to produce a written constitution, which would go out again to the public, including the participants in the convention to comment on, and finally get the Is dotted. I consider it a really important process to get started. If the Canadians needed to meet once every month  for six months,  to look at a small part of the constitution, them it seems to me that we are looking at one every 6 weeks would take two or three  years to get something overarching as a full constitution. There are so many complexities to look at and the last thing we need is something the Americans have. Having a written constitution is complex thing that we need to look at over time. We do need to start where people are at and look at questions such as how and why people are forced to do unpaid labour while searching for a job, and the problems of acquiring secure and reasonable accommodation. These are not just problems of the poorest, but also of people quite well up the socio-economic ladder. These are important issues that we need to start with, and moving from these to our appalling  democracy and broken constitution.

XXX: The thing about being British is there are these compromises. We have beheaded one of our monarchs, but now we have one, but it’s all okay as long as she does what she is told. Or people think we have banks that lend out money that people deposited in them, and that is all okay as long as people do not know where money really comes from, and this is all embedded into our system and constitutions, where we never really tell the truth about what is really going on .This is what we have to overcome.

XXX : I really agree that the constitution is a distribution of power, and so a constitutional convention should be about how people would like that power to be distributed. We can presuppose that this would be some kind of representative democracy, or participatory democracy, but the convention would decide that. We may need as an outcome a full written constitution, but certainly an agreement on how power is distributed. Certainly now we are not in a democracy. On who can influence this process? I note that the two big constitutional questions posed by are two recent referendum on Scottish Independence and the EU have generated huge debates and conversations between people, in pubs etc., so I don’t think this is boring for people. Often the issues are obscured. Politicians would be much engaged if these issues are being debated widely as people become knowledgeable about the issues, they can’t be dodged and so positions become accountable.

XXX: Assemblies for Democracy have been debating if a referendum is the best outcome for this process as it does ensure that the process is meaningful and once people know they will have the final say, plus it accords with the principle that power rests with the people.

XXX: I found the discussion on Magna Carta  very interesting and the focus on local issues. There are other groups focusing on single issues and there is a huge amount of energy in each local group, as this is about where people are at with local issues. If we could find a way of bringing people and these groups together then we could build a movement. Earlier we discussed how democracy is never given; it is taken. So while I think we need to recognise that politicians are important, but somehow we need to take it from the politicians, we can’t ask them to give it to us.  It is a huge problem and it don’t know the solution to this.


Aisha: I have a few reflections on this. When we speak about this we have often talked about bringing people together in rooms for whole weekends for a long period of time, possibly years. But I think this seems like quite an old fashioned way of doing things. We heard the speaker earlier talking about us now being a networked society and it seems like a missed opportunity not to recognise the opportunities this brings. Pretty much all of us will have a smart phone and are connected and networked much of the time. To think about bringing people to a central room for 48 hours seems very old fashioned. We now have opportunities to create platforms to get the voices of many more people, and this is the way things are organised all the time now. It seems that we are missing something if we are only thinking about bringing people together in a room. On the bringing groups together: every single campaigning group I know has that same desire and it is that very elusive and difficult thing to do. I have been in so meetings where people propose bringing people together to see how the same things underpin the problems that each campaign is facing. I also want to go back to the issue of engaging the single mother in the Glasgow housing estate, and reflect on the TTIP campaign and how this has managed to become a mass campaign. I never would have imagined that negotiations around a free trade agreement would have engaged so many people because it is in one way very detailed and as boring as hell, and nobody really understands it, but it has been a very popular campaign that is has engaged a mass of people. So I think we need to be careful about underestimating peoples capacity to only engage in the very local issues, when it is clear that people can and do engage with broader issues.


XXX: One way of getting groups together would be to invite people to the launch of the convention that is planned in the Autumn [by Labour minister for the constitutional convention , Jon Trickett and King’s College University ]. This would be good to know more about – and detail of what it planned in Autumn. If this is only for Labour  party members I feel this process will be dead in the water, for  me , so it would be good to know more about this and what is planned.


XXX: Can I come back to the issue and groups. I think there is a commonality between all these groups and that it is about power: whether it is Magna Carta, TTIP, or Occupy. Power has  gone to the city. It is the same issues so you could bring all these groups together under that banner of power. We have lost it in the political parties; because we can’t get a job; etc. There is a way of addressing this: we have lost our power and we want it back.


XXX: Overall we are talking about gaining the power back and putting it in the hands of people, and taking this from the politicians, but when we were listening to experts and the experience of recent constitutional conventions the most successful one, that were not that successful anyway, did include politicians. I know there are some people in the room who think we should not include positions, but if we don’t then,  barring a bloody revolution,  how do we get this implemented if we are not including politicians in the process.


XXX: I wanted to answer that question – we need to build a movement, a people’s constitutional movement. It can’t be in the hands of politicians, this constitutional convention is all well good, but that is a Labour party citizen’s convention. I think it needs to be a movement and that is what we all need to build up. When we have the constitutional conventions, whether it is Labour or us organising it, and we have the conclusions and a written constitution that we are happy with, then we have to go into action to ensure the positions accept it, or to give us a referendum so that we can accept it.


XXX I would be happy to take power from the politicians , but what I think that is really needed to do is ‘create power’ that is latent from the existing people, associations, networks  and groups that exist, as we will end up creating more power than that which presently exists and is exercised . So this about making a new kind of power, that means inevitably  reducing the power of those that have it, but creating power is what I think needs to be done.  I think those of us making the constitutional convention have to make a genie that can not be put back into the bottle. The anarchic messy power of democracy means nobody will have control of it: not me, not the politicians and that is the aim – an on-going dynamic process. It probably does not end ever, and not with a nice written document – it needs to carry on, to be embedded and enacted.


XXX: I don’t think that the creation of a written document is the solution to all the things that we would aspire to as the solution. America has a written document that is better than many countries, and yet they have even bigger social, problems than we do so I do not think that going thorough years of creating a written document is not the solution. If what we mean by creating a constitution is changing the democratic way of working, then it does have a chance of addressing problems. This is what we need to clarify. Rather than focusing on a full written constitution we need a new form of democracy. I would suggest getting away from constitution conventions.  I would suggest talking about new ways of doing democracy: sortation etc.


XXX: In reference to question 6 – what would be the outcome. Firstly, if the answer is not a popular referendum then I can not imagine what the answer would be. Secondly,  a lot of the comments about power, or its absence, seems to be more about a democratic or participative manifesto and not necessarily a constitutional convention. I won’t try and pick apart how they might be related, but I find that interesting.


XXX: I wanted to pick in the American condition and its dismal failure, and that is about democratic practice.  That practice produced the constitution in the first place. It must be written and it must be living. In other words it requires democracy to make it, in order for it to penetrate and  to be politically and morally meaningful. It is also requiring it to be accessible: understandable, readable and locatable – and that is not what is happening here. You spoke a moment about the need for a constitutional movement: such a movement exists already – it’s called the Independent Constitutionalists UK, the website is I will read from the first page: “Welcome to a Movement and a Political Process working to create a People’s Political-Economy of Trusteeship in the Harmony of Nature, and a New Confederation for the Islands of Britain – Confederation through Subsidiarity for Genuine Democracy where the grass-roots can grow.”

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