Now is the time to stand up as champions of deliberative democracy

Our party is back on the right track. Covid seems to have brought us to our senses: the reaction of local parties, of MPs, and of peers to Covid has been impressive, and it does seem that there is a renewal of our central commitment to the idea of the empowered citizen as the most important element in a healthy politics.

The next step is to make ourselves the party of deliberative democracy, and to do so right now, by calling for a Covid Citizens’ Reference Panel to deliberate on and input into government policy as we transition over the coming months from lockdown to a new in-between and ultimately a new normal. This is the new political institution this moment demands, and we are the party to start the call for it.

Instead of arguing amongst themselves about how to throw the little people the “morale booster” of the resumption of the football season, government needs to be open about the simple truths that we can’t sustain complete lockdown much longer and that there won’t be a vaccine for at least 18 months, if not longer. That means we need to come out of lockdown to some degree, but not go back to normal. And here the really big questions begin.

Should children go back to school first? Or should the priority be getting as much manufacturing and industry back up and running as possible? Should different levels happen in different regions? Should distinctions be made by age group? Then there is tracking and tracing. Should we track people’s movements extensively? Should we prioritise contact tracing? How much should concern for privacy limit the extent to which we do either? If those who have had the virus are then immune, should they be able to do whatever they want, while everyone else has their freedom compromised? How would we deal with this dramatic new inequality if so?

Any answer to any of these questions involves trade-offs: the freedom of one group against that of another; privacy against security; and even lives lost directly to Covid against lives lost to the consequences of economic contraction. And the critical point about such trade offs is they cannot be resolved scientifically or just through expertise. They are about values and judgement, and they have tremendous consequences.

Our calls for a Covid Select Committee and an Independent Inquiry have been good starting points. But the better, bigger, citizen-driven response would be deliberative democracy, and a Covid Citizens’ Reference Panel. This would see a randomly selected but statistically representative group of citizens called together – a lot like jury service – to deliberate on the questions above and make recommendations to government to inform its decisions.

Such methods have come to the fore in recent years: in Ireland, a Citizens’ Assembly recommended that change in the law on abortion; in Canada, Australia, and many more, there has been extensive use of such processes to inform everything from budgets to planning laws to climate policy. The OECD is soon to publish a set of formal recommendations on best practice. Deliberative democracy is a proven approach.

This is the right approach at the right time for the country, and for our party to champion it. To do so will put us back where we should be – as liberal democrats not just by name but by nature, who believe in people, and believe that you get the best out of people if you treat and trust them as active citizens to be involved in shaping society, not just as selfish consumers to be sold a choice between options every few years and thrown treats in between.

* Jon Alexander is a member of the Sevenoaks Local Party, founder of consultancy business the New Citizenship Project, and a member of the OECD Innovative Citizen Participation Network.

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20 Comments

  • Simon McGrath 27th Apr '20 - 1:00pm

    Surely we have people we elect to do this – our MPs. There should be a Select ctte (s) with the power to summon experts etc who can then make recommendations.
    They have the great advantage that if we don’t like them we can kick them out at the next election

  • Jonathan Alexander 27th Apr '20 - 1:21pm

    That would be a start and it’s good we’re asking for it. But I believe this and many other issues demand and would reward more. There are many reasons, not least…
    1) Expertise in this instance as many others absolutely includes lived experience, so a representative sample of the population would be a valid form of direct expertise that will not be gained any other way, and will lead to better decision making
    2) Instrumentally, such a process would also be likely to endow decisions made with greater legitimacy, since “people like me” would have been part of them
    3) Most importantly in my view, involving people directly in this way would mean that these were decisions we were meaningfully making together as a nation, which would in turn contribute to a broader reframing of the role of the citizen as an active participant in democracy that is arguably crucial today – it would symbolise trust in citizens on the part of politicians, which is what is necessary for citizens to trust politicians again

  • Aren’t we in danger of just ending up in the same place as we have with referendums?
    We were in favour of referendums until one came up with an answer we didn’t like.
    And it will be the same for citizens’ panels – we will be in favour of them until they come up with an illiberal policy we can’t sign up to.

  • Jonathan Alexander 27th Apr '20 - 1:31pm

    Two points I would make in response to Alan Jelfs…
    1) Referenda out of nowhere should never have been a Lib Dem position in my view, hence the point about citizens actively involved not consumers to be sold to at the end. But I actually remain in favour of referenda if done properly, and believe deliberative process can play a large part in that. Highly recommend Fintan O’Toole’s piece “If only Brexit had been run like Ireland’s referendum”: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/may/29/brexit-ireland-referendum-experiment-trusting-people
    2) I think we need to be careful about where rejecting referenda, deliberative process, etc takes us. It leaves us rejecting democracy in all forms bar elections, and it strongly suggests a lack of faith in people: a position that is neither democratic nor liberal. Deliberative democracy done well has been described as “democracy under good conditions” – and I believe is something we should absolutely champion.

  • This strikes me as a rant, I am afraid, by an idealist who is detached from the business of real politics — adding a new slogan to sound impressive. Just encourage MPs get on with their business of working constructively with our elected government!

  • Paul Barker 27th Apr '20 - 7:19pm

    This sounds very reasonable, I dont see the “Rant.”

  • Jonathan Alexander 28th Apr '20 - 9:30am

    @Don Manley
    If you’d like to check out the work that the OECD are doing on deliberative democracy as a crucial intervention to shore up liberal democracy, you can find a good introduction here:
    https://medium.com/participo/renewing-democracy-in-an-age-of-complexity-and-disillusionment-70942a6a3ee9

  • The first step would be to ensure that a Reference Panel has access to all the information it needed.
    Our first step should be to make sure that full information is available to us all. How can we judge whether they are making the right decisions when they fail to tell us what evidence they considered and how they analysed it? And failing they most certainly are.

  • I sympathise with the noble ambitions expressed here, but there is no guarantee that deliberative democracy will get the right people making the right decisions at the right time. We need good MPs, good experts, and to work hard within the existing frameworks, rather than risk a parallel system of populism which may not give the result we sensible LibDems would expect — just think referendum!

  • Jonathan Alexander 28th Apr '20 - 11:11am

    @Tom Harney
    I agree with you to some extent, but this is a “pull and push” situation in my view. The creation of a Reference Panel would be a moment to reframe the process of politics in this moment – and to communicate to us as a citizenry that actually we have a role to play. That would create the pull for such information to be published. At the moment people are being told “shh we’ll sort it, you just do as you’re told”.

  • Jonathan Alexander 28th Apr '20 - 11:14am

    @Don Manley
    See my above response to Alan Jelfs. I believe that as liberal democrats (small ‘l’ and big) we need to embrace referenda as well as deliberative process – but demand that they are done well. With Brexit, as Fintan O’Toole argues, it was not the tool but the way the tool was used. A referendum is a sharp knife; it needs to be used with care, but it can be extremely useful.

  • Sue Sutherland 28th Apr '20 - 1:16pm

    I’m surprised at the negative reaction here. We should be in favour of involving people in the decision making process of government just as we have tried to do in local government. Our success in the late 90s and early 2000s was partly down to the fact that people liked our idea of community politics and empowering people. Unfortunately we failed to carry those ideas across into national politics. I sign several worthy petitions to parliament but it’s very rare that one has any effect. The whole process is sidelined off so it has the appearance of enhancing democracy without actually doing anything.
    The suggestion Jon has made is a first step towards allowing ordinary people to influence policy and could be a model for how to influence decision making in government departments. Suggesting it for use in sorting out the effects of the pandemic would be a good way to start as well as a statement of our party’s intent.

  • Sue Sutherland 28th Apr '20 - 1:31pm

    I forgot to say that I believe, rather than just concentrating on reforming the voting system, we should have a whole package of democratic improvements and that enabling people to be part of the decision making process at national level should be one aspect of those improvements.

  • Jonathan Alexander 28th Apr '20 - 2:00pm

    @Sue Sutherland
    Agree wholeheartedly!!!

  • Denis Loretto 28th Apr '20 - 5:38pm

    To those like myself who have strong reservations about decision making by referendum the essential feature of citizens’ assemblies is that they do not have power to make decisions. As a highly influential means of arriving at recommendations I think there is much to be said for them but the decisions must be made by elected representatives.

  • Jonathan Alexander 28th Apr '20 - 6:53pm

    @Denis Loretto
    I actually agree with you on this front – I’m working on an application of the Bain “RAPID” model of decision making to democratic process as part of my membership of the OECD network. But do read the Fintan O’Toole piece above. I would strongly argue that referenda done right have a place!

  • @Denis Loretto

    That might turn out to be a meaningless distinction, though – if a citizen’s assembly produces a difficult recommendation (having deliberated extensively, and having heard evidence from the right sort of experts, and being given every chance to make the recommendation the government wanted to hear) would elected MPs end up in practice feeling the same difficulty in overruling them as they would with an advisory referendum?

    (And if they did then overrule them, would it have a negative effect on participation in any future citizens’ assemblies?)

  • Jonathan Alexander 29th Apr '20 - 10:28am

    @cim @denis loretto
    The evidence from best practice around the world is that clear and explicit contracting is key – and an up front commitment to a full public response explaining the reasoning if any recommendations are not enacted. In the Irish case for instance, it was explicitly a recommendation not a decision making process, and then the government decision was to go to referendum. Some more on RAPID here:
    https://medium.com/@jonjalex/what-if-democracy-was-rapid-b24699b5124e

  • Gordon Lishman 4th May '20 - 4:59pm

    I agree very much with Sue Sutherland.
    As we have seen in the last few years, the problem with relying on knowledgeable, disinterested MPs in the Burke model is that over time, MPs come unsurprisingly to reflect the views and prejudices of the people who elect them.
    I agree with Jefferson that the basis of democracy is “an enlightened citizenry” and with Adam Smith that “An instructed and intelligent people … are always more decent and orderly than an ignorant and stupid one…. They are more disposed to examine, and more capable of seeing through, the interested complaints of faction and sedition, and they are, upon that account, less apt to be misled into any wanton or unnecessary opposition….. In free countries, where the safety of government depends very much upon the favourable judgment which the people may form of its conduct, it must surely be of the highest importance that they should not be disposed to judge rashly or capriciously concerning it (Wealth of Nations).
    Jon’s thoughts are o ne element in what ought to be a wide-ranging liberal approach to engaging people in politics and government.

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