Blog article

Rebooting democracy? The case for a citizens constitutional convention.

I was part of a messy Moral Maze programme on Radio 4 this evening. The focus was whether there was a duty to vote.

My sense is yes, in the simple sense that if you vote, you are entitled to feel good about it. You are getting involved. If there was no sense that voting was right to do, then there might be no voting and if no voting, then we will have no democracy.

It is like giving blood. It is a good thing to do and we are better off as a society if enough people give blood. But no one is going to put you in the stocks if you don’t do it. It is a civic duty, not a new addition to the Ten Commandments.

But to say that it is a civic duty doesn’t mean to say that the way to tackle the evident woes of today’s representative democracy is by framing it in moral terms.

Firstly, you can be active and engaged in political issues and choose not to vote. As one person said to me in the run up to the programme, is it a moral duty to vote if you believe the people you are voting for are immoral?!

Second, we oversell voting. The focus on voting as the sole way people can express their democratic will is not useful. That’s not to dismiss it’s importance, but to say that we need a much more rounded view of what democratic participation does/can entail. We need to be looking at what can be done to provide meaningful opportunities for people to participate.

That’s where Involve’s work, a democracy charity that I chair, has been for over ten years – exploring the extraordinarily rich portfolio of techniques that are possible for what we can call participative democracy.

That’s not to assume that everybody gets involved in every decision, or that we don’t need experts to be experts, but it is a way of getting better decisions and better buy-in because people are given a voice, given a choice.

The BBC panel assumed that this was all about town hall meetings and flip charts – and perhaps that’s the caricature – but as the cooperative sector knows, there is plenty of everyday democracy at work across the UK beyond voting in politicians to parliaments and assemblies.

The examples are now fairly well known.

– Open government means that decisions are taken in the public eye rather
than behind closed doors.

– Citizens juries are examples of deliberative voting. Time and effort goes into getting the facts straight and understood and then you canvas peoples views.

– Participative budgeting gives the public the power to decide where money is spent. In the UK, so far, at a neighbourhood level we have only had small change ‘participatory pocket money’.

– New technology makes it easier than ever for people to get involved.

NHS England operates a programme called NHS Citizen that Involve has helped to design, which is all about bringing the voice of the patient into the culture and leadership of the NHS. It is work in progress, but it is a much richer conception of democracy than voting once every five years for a party of political representatives to decide everything for you.

I was present at one session in which Board members of NHS England listened to patients with mental health troubles. When you are a Board member, you are responsible for culture and values of the system, but it is the paperwork and finance that dominates formal meetings. Participatory projects like this bring in the voice of the patient and is starting to change how things are run.

When people in Merseyside were asked by the police what mattered to them, it wasn’t that police got there fast, which is what the managers had always thought, it was that the police came when they said they would.

The treatment of breast cancer, the availability of language services have been improved by citizen campaigns.

By using imaginative ways to get people involved, five wards in Birmingham have cut crime at twice the rate of other areas in the city – saving money for the taxpayer.

Some of the panel were looking for the magic bullets to reboot democracy – compulsory voting, votes for over sixteen year olds, state funding. All these are options, reasonable options to be argued through but if they don’t carry sufficient consensus, they are tinkering with the democratic mandate rather than renewing it. We have other issues that are flaws to address and that won’t wait forever:

– the West Lothian question of who votes on English matters

– the postcode democracy of devolution beyond the nations to the regions and cities, which implies profound changes not just for people in those areas but also those just outside them.

– whether we need a written constitution or whether we continue with our tacit and evolving settlement.

What we need, to look at all of this, is a citizen-led constitutional convention. Scotland had one back in the 1990s. Ireland and Iceland have experience, including crowd sourcing a possible new constitution.

How will this work? One option is to build on the citizens jury model, keeping politicians at bay. If so, it would be randomly selected but a representative sample of the population – similar to a jury, but on a bigger scale. The number of people could range from 100 to 1,000. Over something like eighteen months, say, you would go through a design phase, and then, gathering expertise and evidence, a deliberation phase and then a recommendation phase – all with satellite discussions feeding in.

The recommendations can go to Government, or on to a referendum. The constitutional convention is there to present a programme, but the decision to change the framework of democracy is one that has to be decided in an exemplary way, if it is to last.

My sense is that, with all due respect to the political class represented on the panel I met tonight, we need to rescue politics from the political experts.

Democracy is more than voting, and why should we not in future expect more opportunities to have a say on the decisions that affect us, easier participatory opportunities in the neighbourhood and, radically, more economic democracy in our workplaces?

Engage people in these ways, the evidence shows, and they are anyway more likely to vote.


Written by Ed Mayo
Updated: 18/02/2015