Thursday 4 June 2009

Towards a citizens' convention?

Ideas for political reform are bouncing off the walls at the moment. David Cameron has tried to position the Conservatives as a 'power-to-the-people' party, leading some to see this, incredibly, as evidence of a Tory republicanism. Nick Clegg followed up with a detailed plan - so detailed one was surprised he didn't tell us at what point on the afternoon of June 26 - 4.00 or 4.30pm? - the gathered parliamentarians would adjurn for fifteen (or perhaps twenty?) minutes for tea and biscuits (with or without the option of fruit juice). And then along came Gordon Brown with his announcement of a National Council on Democratic Renewal, a proposal which went rather to the opposite extreme in terms of detail.

Amidst all the clamour, some voices have been heard arguing that the process of reform itself needs in some way to relate to the underlying problem - the disconnection between political elite and the public. There is also an issue of basic democratic principle. If this is a major moment of constitutional reform, and if the people are sovereign, then surely the process of reform ought to involve the people in a meaningful way?

One moderate response to this is the proposal to hold a referendum on electoral reform on the same day as the next general election. However, this still leaves the agenda-setting firmly in the hands of the political elite. They get to decide what goes on the referendum.

A more radical response, put forward by Helena Kennedy, is to hold some kind of citizens' convention to deliberate about reform and to present recommendations to the political elite. ippr, amongst others, have been in the forefront of arguing for this approach. Demos have been talking about something similar and are today holding their own deliberative event on reform of the expenses system. Over at OurKingdom, Guy Aitchison reports that a bill has now been introduced into Parliament to establish such a convention. It is supported by Unlock Democracy and a cross-party group of MPs. Guy writes:

'The Public Accountability and Political Ethics Bill would establish a citizens' convention composed of one hundred people selected by lot from the electoral register to look at ways to clean up and reform the UK's political system. They would deliberate on urgent questions of democratic reform before submitting their recommendations in a report to be enacted swiftly by Parliament unless, the Prime Minister, or Parliament, disagrees with them, in which case either of them, or 5% of citizens, could call a referendum on the issue.'

This a big step forward over the top-down technocratic approaches adopted by the leaders of all three main political parties. The Bill deserves enthusiastic support.

Still, one might wonder whether the proposed Bill even goes far enough. Is there some way of connecting a citizens' convention to a wider consultative exercise, one that could engage more than 100 people?

1 comment:

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

It is envisaged that the Citizens' Convention process would involve a lot more than 100 people - on the basis that the Convention would have to receive evidence.

On that point, Helena Kennedy was surely right on Monday when she said that it would be up to civic society (including the Fabians, natch) to widen the debate out as widely as possible.