A Brief History

Assemblies for Democracy and the Campaign for a Citizens-led Constitutional Convention: A brief history by Corinna Lotz

Since its formation in the summer of 2014, Assemblies for Democracy has organised a series of initiatives and events to highlight the glaring democratic deficit in the UK and to propose solutions. Successful assemblies and meetings have since taken place in London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester, and Swansea. An Assembly to discuss constitutional change has also taken place in County Wicklow in Ireland.

Our unique role is that we are a citizen-led grassroots movement. We share the belief that the current system’s lack of democracy is inseparable from the power of corporate interests and their influence on politics. We are learning from past and present constitutional processes and conventions in the UK and internationally.

We believe that the process of bringing people together to create a new democratic constitution must be totally transparent and as widely popular as possible. We have to find ways for people to see their pressing daily needs and problems reflected in the way the constitution is developed and written.

Assemblies for Democracy believe that the broadest possible involvement in a convention process is vital. Therefore, all forms of consultation – face-to-face assemblies and/or conventions and meetings, the use of digital and social media – are needed. We seek to enable participants to articulate a wide diversity of views, in a way which does not pre-empt the views of a convention. Finally, to go beyond the existing constitutional arrangements, requires not only deliberation and debate but finding new ways of ratifying, enshrining and – finally – applying its principles in practice.

The original proposal to launch a campaign for a People’s Assembly for Democracy was first made by the Agreement of the People for the 21st Century group in May 2014. This received strong support from the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and John McDonnell MP.

A range of democracy campaigners and organisations working for human, social and economic rights then responded to a call to create the Assembly. The call stated:

“We believe the time is right to discuss the crisis in our democracy and put forward positive proposals that can take society forward. The rise of Ukip and far right parties around Europe reflects a growing alienation from the political process. Many are concerned that government is so aligned with business interests that the needs of ordinary people are often relegated into second place.”

In response to the call, a range of democracy and human rights campaigners, organisations and individuals, from London, Southeast England and Manchester attended a meeting in Parliament on 1 July 2014. This led to the formation of a planning group which began work for the first Assembly for Democracy.

The Scottish independence referendum, the 2015 General Election result, the drive to impose the TTIP trade agreement and the planned referendum on EU membership all lent urgency to the need to discuss and address where power currently resides and where it should lie.

In response to these constitutional challenges/upheavals we organised a one-day conference, Re-Imagine Democracy, in March 2015 at London Southbank University. This was attended by 100 people who participated in a dozen working groups.

Then, in May 2015, the election of a Conservative government by just 24.3% of the electorate was a clear indicator of the increasingly unrepresentative and undemocratic nature of the political system. Just after the election, under the auspices of Occupy Democracy people came together opposite the Houses of Parliament to call for “Real Democracy Now!”. openDemocracy founder Anthony Barnett joined speakers from Assemblies for Democracy to address the historic crisis of representative democracy. They all raised the need for constitutional change and a citizen’s convention to work for this. The need for a citizens’ constitutional convention had already been one of Occupy Democracy’s core demands.

In June 2015, on the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, we were invited to speak at the Festival of Democracy, camped near Runnymede, where the great charter was signed in 1215. The gathering agreed to campaign for a citizens’ convention on the constitution. Assemblies for Democracy were also held in Glasgow and Manchester. A planning group began to meet in Swansea. A UK-wide Assembly of Assemblies was formed via Skype to share ideas.

Assemblies for Democracy Glasgow held grassroots discussions about democracy and independence; fracking and democracy; democracy and Trident renewal; and a discussion of all sides of the European Union referendum debate from 2015 onwards.

In November 2015 the London group organised another participatory conference to build its campaign for a constitutional convention called Re-imagine democracy: Towards a Citizens Convention on the Constitution. Held at London’s Waterloo Action Centre, it was attended by some 150 people from London and other parts of the country, as well as Scotland and Wales. Speakers included Green Party leader, Natalie Bennett, John Hendy and Liz Davies of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers, plus others who addressed eight working groups.

At this event, a new planning group was created and an invitation to join it was extended to everyone present and the over 300 individuals who had registered for the Assembly. The convention planning group meets monthly and has agreed the following principle:

“We affirm the democratic principle that power should rest with the people” and the following aims:

  1. campaign for a Citizens Convention on the Constitution
  2. work with other campaigns, organisations and individuals on practical steps that lead to the holding of a Convention
  3. launch a citizen/people-led constitutional democratic process.”

On 10 May 2016, Assemblies for Democracy held a participatory public meeting, Designing Democracy for the 21st Century, at the House of Commons to discuss the purpose and process of a constitutional convention. This took place under the auspices of John McDonnell MP and included speakers from a range of constitutional and democracy organisations.

In July 2016 we organised a day of deliberation called Constituting Democracy, which took place at Southbank University, and allowed supporters to discuss how UK citizens could contribute to, and legitimise, a new constitution for the UK.

On 2 July, after the Brexit referendum result was announced, Assemblies for Democracy organised a letter to The Guardian, calling for a citizens’ convention on a new constitution. It was signed by Michael Mansfield QC, Neal Lawson of Compass, Natalie Bennett of the Green Party of England and Wales, actor Michael Sheen and Nick Dearden of Global Justice Now! and Assemblies for Democracy amongst others.

Also in the summer of 2016, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn issued a press release which set out proposals for extending democracy, taking up some of our proposals.

Manchester supporters of Assemblies for Democracy organised The Peoples’ Plan – Bringing Democracy to Manchester, which took place on 22 November 2016, on the question of devolution in Greater Manchester.

The planning group for Assemblies for Democracy in London has agreed to work on a UK-wide strategy and campaign for a citizens’ led convention. A road map to achieving this is being discussed. A draft presentation on the nature of the existing UK constitution is currently under collective development.

In November, a delegation from Assemblies for Democracy London met with Green Party of England and Wales co-leaders Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley, after extending the following invitation:

Assemblies for Democracy invites democracy campaigns, trade unions, political parties and others to come together in a planning group to work for a citizens-led convention/s on the constitution based on our principle that power should rest with the people.

The Green Party’s leaders expressed warm support for the idea of working together for such a convention and suggested that Assemblies for Democracy hold discussions with other groups and organisations with a view to creating an alliance. A list of groups and organisations is being drawn up with that in mind.

Assemblies for Democracy Scotland is working with others towards a new initiative to be launched early in 2017. Neoliberalism v Democracy – Waking Up to Reality which aims to bring people from across the UK together on 11-12 February, to frame and study the new period we are in, and what kind of movement and practices that demands.

We welcome participation by all those who feel aligned with our principles and who want to create Assemblies in their localities or join the campaign for a citizen-led convention on the constitution in a spirit of inclusivity and diversity. Assemblies for Democracy is in itself an ongoing experiment in democratic working and we are learning together as we go. All ideas, comments or suggestions are most welcome.