Graham Allen: It’s time to review our democracy on a sustainable all-party basis

6 Jan

Graham Allen is Convener of The Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy and was MP for Nottingham North 1987-2017.

Winston Churchill once said “Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. Regardless of political affiliation, all of those of us who call ourselves democrats worry about keeping that system viable-the best “worst” it can be. Our democracy feels fragile and poorly maintained. If it is to have a strong long-term future it now needs some serious love and attention. The Government’s election promise to create a Commission on Constitution, Democracy and Rights presents the perfect opportunity to do just that, in an overarching way or in bite size pieces as is happening on Judicial Review, Human Rights and English devolution.

If we want to renew UK democracy then people of good will from all political backgrounds have to come up with some persuasive ideas and arguments. Above all these must remake an effective partnership between a jaundiced public and a political class that sometime struggles to know what to do next to reconnect with them. However in a sometimes depressing picture of national and international democracy there is a growing glimmer of hope – and oddly it has a pedigree going back to ancient Greece .

One unremarked item has been that all the four main UK-wide parties actually agreed in their last election manifestos on the need for a review of our democracy, be it by a commission, a citizens’ convention, or assembly. The optimism here for democrats of all persuasions is based upon the recognition that elections alone are not enough and like the ancient Greeks using deliberative democracy to re-engage citizens thoughtfully with their politics is an important way to restore trust and participation. This would not only halt the decline of faith in UK democracy but also take it to its next evolution, a cultural development as significant as was “Votes for All”.

It is time to review our democracy on a sustainable all-party basis, and make it strong enough to transcend the complacency, elitism and populism that threaten its very existence. Government and Parliament will of course have the central role. By agreeing in advance each step of the way (including an impartial governing board) they will be completely confident that deliberation is a welcome improvement of our democracy not a threatening alternative to it. Citizens and elected representatives who have hitherto felt powerless can work with government to play our part as sensible and constructive partners. The moment has come. As Hillel is reputed to have said “If not now, when? If not me, who?”.

So what is deliberative democracy? It is tasty and nourishing slow-cooked politics, the antithesis of our present fast food McPolitics. Deliberation is where a microcosm of the nation, region or locality propose recommendations for consideration by legislatures. In essence a group of 80 or so citizens, transparently and scientifically selected by IPSOS-Mori or suchlike come together to conduct, in the words of deliberative democracy guru James Fishkin, “democracy in good conditions”.

They are properly fed and watered, travel costs paid, even a small honorarium of thanks and a decent hotel for however many weekend days it takes them. Perhaps most importantly citizens don’t bring the baggage and prejudices of political parties with them. A point is made to discuss issues respectfully and with good manners with the seven or eight people on your table, a mind opening counterpoint to the yah-boo of the House of Commons chamber and the distortion of political and anti-social media spinners.

The amazing thing is that deliberative democracy is actually working and gaining traction in the UK and across the globe. The record shows that deliberators “everyday people“ like us are – with balanced briefing and professional facilitation – perfectly able to take forward issues which are found to be intractable to usual political processes. “Give us your toughest problem “ is the challenge from deliberators.

Scores of democratic deliberations are now underway or successfully completed for example on abortion in Ireland, nuclear power in South Korea, energy policy in Texas, social care in Northern Ireland, waste recycling in South Australia, the UK Parliament’s own Climate Change Assembly and three UK-government sponsored local deliberations in Dudley, Cambridge and Test Valley which are spawning many others.

Finally deliberators hand their finished gift to their elected representatives to do their part, the consideration and decision. Hitherto these representatives that we elect have been hamstrung by whips, tribal party loyalties, electoral short termism, lobbying and campaigning money to the extent that they are often unable to progress issues. I know since I was one for 30 years.

Hence, far from feeling squeezed out or undermined, representatives actually welcome the new democratic dyno-rod of deliberation to unblock our constipated political processes. They see that renewing a mutually respectful pre-legislative partnership with citizens strengthens them get the job done that we elected them and the rest of our parliament to do,

In the UK, the independent Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy with senior all party support has been working out how to use deliberative processes to enable citizens to help review our UK democratic institutions and to discuss with Government the political endgame to deliver change. Our proposal has been sent to the PM and Michael Gove for consideration.

We will continue to work with HMG and across the political spectrum to create an effective and inclusive review. An agenda for Citizen’s deliberation agreed by HMG might include the second chamber, devolution, clarifying “who does what” in our politics and much else. The joint ambition is to go beyond the “40 white guys in Philadelphia” model and, using traditional and the latest on-line techniques, back up our groups of 80 citizens by engaging with potentially millions of founding mothers and fathers in a UK national conversation on improving our democracy.

This independent process means that these initial recommendations will be citizens’ proposals not yours or mine or those of our favourite pressure group. They will ultimately be respectfully handed to HMG’s Review and to our elected representative for the final consideration and decision that their electoral mandate deserves. Pericles remarked “We are unique in considering the man who takes no part in public affairs not to be apolitical, but useless”. It is time for you and I to stop being a useless spectator and play our part on the democratic pitch while we still have it.

We are right to test and question this new-fangled deliberative democracy but you will be pleased to discover that much like elections, it’s rediscovered twin, deliberation is a process adapted from the ancients. It is not politics like we used to do, it is politics that every civilised society should aspire to do.

Before any further public announcement about reviews of  UK democracy we will continue our work with the Government on how to give everybody a meaningful stake in their democratic future. We can look at the growing number of successful examples of deliberation from home and abroad or maybe, just ask the Greeks.