Designing Democracy for 21st Century

An Assemblies for Democracy meeting 10th May 2016 at the House of Commons, Westminster

Report by Julie Timbrell/Peter Arkell; Photos Peter Arkell

Designing Democracy for the 21st Century was called by Assemblies for Democracy, to talk about why we need a constitutional convention, and to consider how we design one that will have the best outcome for citizens.  Energy has been building for a citizens-led convention that looks critically at the present broken UK constitution and comes forward with proposals for democratic change amongst democracy groups, social justice campaigners, citizens and progressive parties. The Green party has called for one, and Jon Trickett, the shadow minister for the constitutional convention, supports the idea. King’s College, University of London, is drafting a proposal to create and run a convention. This event was called to bring experts on designing conventions, democracy groups and citizens together to learn more about the process such a citizen-led convention could look like.

Julie Timbrell

Julie Timbrell

The meeting, co-chaired by Corinna Lotz, opened with Julie Timbrell, Assemblies for Democracy, talking about the state of our democracy and why we need a citizen-led convention based on the principle of power resting with the people. Julie spoke about the growing protest globally for Real Democracy, which is mirrored by a widespread disengagement from parliamentary democracy and a distrust of politicians and government. Democracy is seen to have been captured by elites, while there are growing calls for a more participative or direct democracy. The call for democracy is related to social movement-goals for more equitable, peaceful and environmentally sustainable societies, and indeed countries which are more democratic, with more social and environmental justice.

She questioned the common description of this country as a democracy and said that a better description is a Constitutional Monarchy. We have a partial democracy, although how power is actually exercised is unclear as our constitution is unwritten.  Democracy is not synonymous with parliamentary democracy, and actually there are many other forms of democracy that have been practiced and are growing in popularity: assemblies, petitions, referendums, participation in issue-based campaigns. Democracy is not just about the process of making decisions; it is also about the distribution of power and the goals of the system; the values. The implicit value of our system is growth and profit, whereas increasingly people have been calling for people and planet to be put first.  Changing the values and goals of a system can make the most difference and shouldn’t be overlooked.

Assemblies for Democracy have adopted the principle of power resting with the people, which accords with the definition of democracy being about the will of the people. Designing a citizen-led constitutional process with that principle in mind would necessitate the people having a say in the agenda, participating in the development of the proposals and in deciding the outcome.

Julie Timbrell’s speech is here [transcript]

Aisha Dodwell, Global Justice Now! spoke about why our democracy is broken. She agreed with Julie that our democracy is partial and said that she had taken part in the Occupy Democracy demonstration outside in Parliament Square. Forty years ago it would have been possible to argue, despite the partial nature of our democracy, that it was in relatively good health:  post war our democracy created the NHS.  However over the last 40 years this democracy has been hollowed out with the rise of neoliberalism. Our major parties have become beholden to media magnates like Murdoch, the lobbying industry has grown, and the parties have become dominated by career politicians whose interests and jobs are aligned more with these lobbyists and media empires. Corporations and banks are exercising more and more influence over our democracy.

Aisha Dodwell

Aisha Dodwell

Aisha spoke about the campaign against TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) that is being negotiated in secrecy and away from the front pages of the newspapers or the glare of TV cameras, by bureaucrats and lawyers from the USA and the EU. TTIP It is a threat to democracy, standards and jobs. Safety regulations, workers’ rights, environmental protection rules and food standards regulations are all threatened. All of these are seen by corporate interests as barriers to trade and profits. If TTIP is agreed, health, education, even the provision of water, will each face being opened up to private companies. TTIP is less of a negotiation about trade and more of a full frontal attack on society by transnational corporations, wishing to impose their will on people on both sides of the Atlantic.

TTIP is part of a wider assault on democracy by the corporations, banks and elites. There are other trade treaties that are also very dangerous for the Global South, such as the New Alliance for Food Security. The recent Panama Papers demonstrate the link between politicians, wealthy corporations and tax havens. It is this powerful influence of money and corporations on our society that we need to tackle if we are to have a real democracy

Neal Lawson

Neal Lawson

Neal Lawson, from Compass spoke on the opportunity now in front of us. He said the old way of doing things has become dysfunctional, and new emerging networked, participative form of democracy is on the horizon, but has not quite arrived. He spoke about moving beyond a democracy with politicians merely viewing the public as voting fodder and towards a democracy that trusts the people. In order to realise this we will need to believe in ourselves and organise.

Alan Renwick

Alan Renwick

Alan Renwick, UCL, spoke about six key considerations and lessons learned from other convention processes.

  1. What is the purpose of this process?

Alan said that, at the most cynical level, a constitutional convention can be used by politicians to push all the difficult matters into the long grass! Other, more positive reasons, should be given legitimacy and strength to the reforms that are needed (e.g. reform of electoral system). He recommended that a good aim is to elicit informed, considered public opinion on what reforms are needed.

  1. Who is represented in this process?

It should be taken as a given that the people in a democracy are sovereign and their representation is therefore essential. But who are “the people”? Alan’s recommendation is that ordinary members of the public form the body and that this should be stratified to get a broad range of socio-economic participation. However there is a need to provide support and encouragement to get more marginalised groups involved. Sometimes there are questions about people’s capacity to engage with difficult constitutional questions – however the evidence is that as long as people are given adequate support (information , time , facilitation) then this is entirely possible and the evidence supports this . Politicians however frequently want to be included, as do civic society and other experts. He said the role of experts and civic society is to go along and provide expertise and give views, but certainly not to be part of the decision-making process. The politicians` role is problematic, particularly as proposals and recommendations will be dealing with their power and their role. However it is also problematic to exclude them.  If politicians are not involved they are likely to oppose the final recommendation as they have not been involved in devising them .

3  What would the agenda be?

There are four possibilities:

  • The big possibility is a codified constitution. Alan did not think this a good idea as it is a mammoth task, very  time consuming , and very hard to do as there is not a popular  movement for undertaking large constitutional changes.
  • A constitutional smorg-brod, which is the Irish approach. The Labour Party is leaning in this direction. This is also difficult as well.
  • A focus on structure of the Union (such as English decision making / the West Lothian question). This will bring up the issue of the Lords.
  • Electoral reform. Electoral reform is more manageable, but less rewarding.

4  Structures

This could it be a unitary or federal structure, or unitary with regional bodies. There are problems with this as the SNP or the Unionists may reject either, as the format presupposes the outcome.

5 How should it conduct its business?

There is now quite a lot of evidence of what would work, derived from previous citizen conventions and citizen juries. The first component is learning – to hear from experts and to consider a wide a range of options. Then there is Consultation – to hear from the public and interested parties. Next is Deliberation – for participants to discuss and deliberate. The normal pattern is to deliberate for the whole weekend, with a minimum of two weekends per discussion. Participants need time and a gap to reflect and read up on the issues.

6 How can it secure its voice?

A convention, at a minimum, would produce a report with its recommendations. It is important to secure engagement from civil society, politicians and the media. In Ireland the politicians often didn’t turn up. Other ideas for involving politicians are as a consultative board where they come along and serve by giving advice. This way politicians feel like they are important but they are not there taking decisions.

Alan Renwick, UCL speech is here 


Frances Foley

Frances Foley

Frances Foley, Unlock Democracy spoke about lessons from Unlock Magna Carta , a project that Unlock Democracy did last year that went around the country in 2015, during the celebrations of the 800-year anniversary of its signing. It was essentially a political outreach project that ended up going in lots of different directions. They had quite a substantial budget which enabled them to go round the country, book Town Halls,  provide facilitators and invite communities to tell them what they wanted to talk about. The idea was to crowd-source a charter and put together a list of demands: the Peoples’ Charter. As the process went on they discovered there was a massive appetite for these events. There is a commonly held view that people are not interested in politics in this country and don`t want to discuss the constitution down the pub, but actually most conversations do link to politics and values.

There are four things they learnt though this project that they thought would be helpful and practical for people to consider in campaigning for a constitutional convention:

Firstly: Start at the position where people are already at. The question often asked is how many people actually care about these things and constitutions. Frances said she thought people already do care. However people are facing real issues; cuts and so on, and if you talk about the constitutional issues too frequently then people start to ask why and complain about the language and drift off; but if you engage in political issues that people care about then it works.  They did an art project with a mining community which they thought would be challenging. They started with talking about changes to the landscape, then the Magna Carta in terms of who had the power to make decisions, who decides, what happens to the land, and who actually owns the land. Starting with where people are at, means doing a lot of listening first.

The second thing is do the preparation. This is about booking the room and understanding that meetings do take organisation, otherwise you will only attract the more privileged socio-economic groups.

The third thing is run with it, or roll with it, depending whether it is a positive or negative thing. For example Unlock Democracy did a project with prisoners, exploring  where power lies, and the legal system, as the Magna Carta deals very much with this. “We explored issues like legal aid. But we were surprised when hanging came up and this was very much supported. However we worked through that – some prisoners spoke about inmates who were wrongly convicted and that meant we were able to question this and their views changed through the deliberative process. But we did really have to allow that to develop because people know if this is not genuine and they feel cheated. This brings up risks as it is possible that people will come to conclusions that are different from those the political people would like.”

The fourth thing is making it meaningful. You do this by making it representative and giving people an opportunity to talk about the issues they want to talk about, but also by having a good follow-up.

There was lots of energy for the unlock Magna Carta project and Frances said she didn`t want that to fizzle out.  “We are developing the project into a broad-based campaign: We The People, which  calls for a people’s conventions and House of Lords reform.  It is very easy to find examples of democracy not working: Fracking, Academisation, and Local Government, but not so easy to talk about the process and convince people that if they do engage it will have an outcome. Constitutions are about process and values, and while this is directly connected to things like hospital closures it takes some effort to make those connections.

It is possible to find the result of our project on line with quite a broad-based series of demands that would take a lot of work to develop and achieve. It is also hard to differentiate between the substantive and the procedural stuff, and that is going to be a key issue for a constitutional convention.

Lastly, to bring about a citizens convention, we do need to develop democratic muscle. Scotland managed to do this over a period of years, but it took time to build up this muscle. People at these meetings said that coming together was not enough, although it was valuable and very helpful. People came out optimistic and started to appreciate each other`s knowledge, expertise and views and to trust each other as a source of knowledge, rather than say the Daily Mail`s views on benefit scroungers and corrupt politicians; and this lays the groundwork for a proper democracy.

Frances Foley, Unlock Democracy speech is  here 


Eddie Molloy

Eddie Molloy

Eddie Molloy, Electoral Reform Society, spoke on the lessons from recent “Democracy Matters” events,  drawing on the 6 big questions  and the experience Alan and Eddie  had with citizens assemblies.

The first question is what would be the purpose of a constitutional convention. We need to be clear about this as a constitutional conventional can act like an empty vessel into which people put all their dreams and desires, just hoping it can achieve something. Eddie suggested that in this case the process would not relate to values or to the idea of ‘making  a democracy that works for everybody’. This means starting where people are already at, as Frances has made clear.  There is no point starting with the big constitutional questions; the West Lothian question, for example, when people are often most concerned about practical issues such as jobs and housing. So how do we make these connections between those immediate concerns and the big democratic concerns?  I think there are  connections between practical concerns, democratic concerns and the big constitutional questions. I think the way to address these is by looking at territorial issues, Alan’s third option, rather than say, electoral reform. Everybody lives in a territory and the process is about starting where people are at and is about looking at things that are actually happening, such as a Scotland and Northern cites devolution, English votes for English lives, boundary issues or regional issues.

This would also need to be matched with a much wider engagement with the population. It is not enough to have mini assemblies working in isolation even with the best support and evidence. So that is the challenge , one of the big challenges – how do we generate the energy, resources and political will to enable these  citizens` assembles to integrate into a wider conversation so that  the mini assemblies will be a focal point of a wider democratic conversation ,  that will  then ultimately lead to proper organised  countrywide constitutional conversation?

Who should be represented in the process? I think there is a consensus here now that it should citizen-led and should be comprised of citizens who are randomly selected. On the question of whether experts should be there, I think Alan has covered this and agree that the experts would be there to advise, not to ‘rule’. Experts are there to contribute to a dynamic process of deliberation for the citizens assembly and the wider conservation.  It is partly a process of collecting a range of options, aggregating those ,  and arriving at proposals reached through a process of deliberation as  people become informed and engaged in dialogue with their fellow citizens , and come to some meaningful decisions.

Who should engage in the process? Well I think that needs to be everybody; as many people as possible – civil society, groups and the wider citizens need to become engaged with this process, and that includes politicians. As we have discussed, and this is key, unless politicians feel in some way onside and involved and engaged in the process it is likely that it will not succeed, and will only result in a wonderful report that is filed away. Whether it is best to include politicians directly or whether we need some kind of commitment to act on the recommendations, is still to be resolved. How this happens is a question that is up in the air, and this also depends whether this is as a government-led process or one undertaken from the opposition, by the Labour Party, as is being proposed. If it is led from outside the government then we will be faced with the potential reality that it will have no binding force. So the best we can hope for , and I would suggest an argument to take part , is that this process will  create a stir by doing it with the maximum cross party support, which may be all the major parties bar one, and to the highest international standards. Then you could pose this constitutional convention, not necessarily as a final decision-making body – though we may want that – but at least as an agenda-setting body whose proposals simply cannot be ignored, particularly if there is a pre-existing commitment by the political parties to adopt the proposals, debate them or at least raise them in Parliament. I think it is key to have that political involvement to make it effective in the longer term, but also to ensure people engage in the process.

The final point is that we cannot actually start this until we know what the topic is to be discussed by the convention until there is some kind of consensus. I think that might be a worthwhile avenue for further discussion.

Eddie Molloy, Electoral Reform Society speech is here 


General discussion

The general discussion used Alan’s six questions as a starting point. Most people considered that the agenda needed to be wide enough to deal with a failure by parliament to represent the will of the people, particularly poorer people, and as such the convention needed to particularly ensure that people from lower socio- economic groups were present. There was general consensus that it needed to be led by the people, rather than politicians.

There was a debate about the need to decide on values, the time needed to develop a full constitution, if a full written constitution was needed, and where the line could be drawn between democratic and constitutional issues, and the need for this to be an on-going process.

There was a grappling with the question of power and how to hold a convention that was able to tackle the big questions , to potentially challenge and change  political power; and how this could be  done with in the current set up – either with the support of the current political parties or independently.

The need for a social movement was identified and with it the need for civic society to be able to develop the political muscle to keep up the momentum and ensure that the recommendations were implemented. Scotland was given as a good example of a successfulcivic movement that had worked over years to bring about the Scottish parliament and devolution.

Paul Feldman

Paul Feldman

Paul Feldman, Assemblies for Democracy spoke on lessons from history, and the importance of outside pressure. where next? Paul referred to the fact that has been a constitution in England. The Instrument of Government was adopted by Parliament in 1653. It was the first codified constitution in history although it only lasted until 1660 and the restoration. The Instrument of Government created a Lord Protector (Cromwell), a strong Parliament and a state Council to advise the Protector. This followed a long period of struggle over the constitution, beginning with the Agreement of the People proposed by the Levellers at Putney. It is said that the Instrument of Government influenced the shape of the American constitution of 1787 with its separation of powers. The point about both these events is that they came out of tumultuous times, when the old way of governing could not sustain itself. In England, it was the Civil War between Parliament and the King, which led to the execution of Charles I, the abolition of monarchy and the House of Lords.

In America, it was the revolutionary war of independence against Britain which led to a constitution. This was closely followed by that of France. This is how constitutions change. It is Clear that in the UK today, a whole range of grievances are not being addressed. Parliament does not respond. Many believe the political system is in the hands of corporate power. In a whole number of areas – housing, education, and health – the imposition of market ‘solutions’ only excludes more people. The ground is fertile for constitutional change. Our work on designing a citizens-led constitutional convention is important preparation for the changes ahead. A convention has to be democratic, transparent, and inclusive.

John McDonnell MP made the closing remarks. The whole process now in the next 18 months to  two years , as the next election draws closer, is to try to  create a climate of opinion  for a whole range of more radical changes , with the objective or creating a much more  equal society, that is based on a prosperous economy  that is economically and environmentally  sustainable. This  prosperity has to be shared equally by all.  The only way this is going to happen is if we introduce a range of new democratic processes, and the aim over the following months is to debate the nature of that democracy and the constitutional changes that are needed at a range of levels: national, regional, local, within firms, and in communities. We are trying to create a radical renaissance of ideas on these issues. The survey and these processes are very valuable for Labour to draw on when it comes to power. But do not underestimate the range of establishment forces that are ranged against this vision and Labour coming to power. Having said that there is a real movement growing for change and all that you are doing will feed into this. Although constitutional change can seem esoteric, I don’t think it is and it has an important role in the changes we need to make. Constitutional change is being led by Jon Trikett, he is leading on this, and again this work should feed into this.  I have waited all my life for a socialist to lead the Labour party, now we have this we need to make the most of the opportunity.

John McDonnell

John McDonnell

The open discussion on the six questions can be read here

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