Time for a Citizens’ Convention

I’m one of some 30 signatories to a letter submitted to the Guardian, and published today, calling on the Prime Minister to take immediate action to reform democracy in the wake of the public collapse in confidence sparked by the MPs’ expenses row. Gordon Brown signalled some half-hearted recognition of the need for change in his conference speech by advocating a referendum to introduce the alternative vote electoral system some time in the next Parliament – it’s a typical Brown demi-measure, falling far, far short of even the minimum required.

no expenses sparedThere’s something rather bizarre at seeing on display the Telegraph’s book of this year’s scandal, No Expenses Spared – it’s the subtitle, The inside story of the scoop which changed the face of British politics. Bizarre for this reason: it’s hard to see how the face of British politics actually has been changed. For sure, some of the faces within British politics will have changed, with many of those MPs who were implicated standing down, voluntarily or under pressure.

But in every other significant respect, British politics is – six months on from flipping, duck island etc – entirely unchanged. And with the Tories committed only to the most superficial of makeovers for democracy (increasing the price of Parliamentary salads, etc), and Labour too knackered to govern themselves out of a paper bag, it’s hard to see where the change that’s so desperately needed will actually come from. Unless we get a Lib Dem government, natch. In the interim, a Citizens’ Convention seems the best, most liberal, means of achieving a democracy which truly represents the public.

Here’s the Guardian letter in full:

MPs returning to Parliament this week might like to think that the fury they faced earlier in the year due to the expenses scandal is now behind them. Yet the storm was as great as it was because of an underlying sense of alienation that has been developing for years.

Some of the ideas which emerged during the conference season aimed at closing this gulf between the political class and the public have been positive contributions, but none of them amount to the sort of fundamental change which we now desperately need. In particular, while Gordon Brown’s support for holding a referendum on electoral reform is a welcome shift, the promise of a vote on an electoral system hand picked by the Prime Minister will be greeted by much cynicism.

The UK needs an independent citizens’ convention to ensure that such decisions cannot be skewed by political self-interest. It is too late to complete such a convention before the general election, but it could be legislated for and begin its work in a matter of weeks. Its work could then progress regardless of which party goes on to form the next government.

We therefore urge the Prime Minister to ease the passage of the Citizens’ Convention (Accountability and Ethics) Bill through Parliament. By establishing this process Gordon Brown signal a commitment to democratic reform in a way that no amount of manifesto commitments and pledges could achieve.

Signed by,

Peter Facey, Unlock Democracy
Caroline Lucas MEP, Green Party
Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner
Claire Rayner
Tony Robinson
Sunder Katwala, Fabian Society (personal capacity)
Neal Lawson, Compass
Jessica Asato, Progress
Carey Oppenheim, IPPR
Simon Woolley, Operation Black Vote
Pam Giddy, Power2010
Anthony Barnett, Open Democracy
David Babbs, 38 Degrees
Elaine Bagshaw, Liberal Youth
Ron Bailey, Local Works
Jonathan Bartley, Ekklesia
Tamasin Cave, Spinwatch
Peter Emerson, De Borda Institute
Nina Fishman
James Graham, Social Liberal Forum
Alex Hilton, LabourHome
Sunny Hundal, Liberal Conspiracy
David Miller, Spinwatch
Vicky Seddon, Unlock Democracy
Nan Sloane, Centre for Women in Democracy
Alex Smith, LabourList
Graham Smith, Republic
Stephen Tall, Lib Dem Voice
Samuel Tarry, Young Labour
Perry Walker, New Economics Foundation
Stuart Weir, Democratic Audit
Stuart White
Stuart Wilks-Heeg, Democratic Audit

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13 Comments

  • Martin Land 13th Oct '09 - 9:13am

    Shame I’m no longer a businessman.

    I’d love to go back to one of my old companies and tell the staff (especially the sales force) that all their expense claims for the last five years were to be re-examined under completely new and arbitrary rules and they would have to pay back whatever we saw fit.

    Perhaps newspaper owners could start the ball rolling with ‘holier than thou’ Editors and Journalists?

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Oct '09 - 10:50am

    Here is what I write to the Guardian in response to their article on the subject. Unfortunately, I did not have time to write something shorter and hence more likely to get published in their letters page.


    Timothy Garton Ash (Back to the same old Ukania, with a muddle in place of
    the constitution, 15 October) notes with approval proposals
    for an assembly of randomly selected citizens to design constitutional
    reforms.

    We should treat such proposals with caution, they sound radical but are
    capable of misuse. Posing a question in order to get the desired answer
    is a well-known trick. Constitutional issues are necessarily abstract,
    and electoral systems are in addition mathematical. Most people,
    particularly in Britain, have no knowledge, skills or interest in such
    things. Any opinion they give, therefore, will be heavily biased by
    who is chosen to give evidence to them. A citizen’s jury on electoral
    reform, for example, if addressed mainly by smart-looking Labour and
    Conservative politicians, is highly likely to come down massively in favour
    of retaining the current system. The same people, with a
    different bias in evidence, would be massively against it.

    So the real power is in who is chosen to give evidence. The danger is that
    this will be rigged, sealed with a similarly rigged referendum, and
    constitutional reform shut down in future with “The people have spoken, who
    are you to argue against what they wanted?”.

    I write this from experience. When I was Leader of the Opposition in the
    London Borough of Lewisham, I saw just this form of trickery used by the
    majority Labour Party to gain the form of local governance they wanted.
    So many people since have said to me “Now I see what you meant, I wish I
    had voted against it”.

    I mean what I say. The Citizens’ Jury and the Referendum are both tools capable of a great deal of misuse when manipulated by those using them with control of the agenda and the aim of getting the answer they first thought of.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Oct '09 - 10:59am

    To take this a little further, while I am in strong support of constitutional reform of the usual type proposed by the likes of Liberal Democrats, I don’t think that is the answer to what is clearly going wrong in politics and was brought to a head by the MPs’ expenses scandal and the public reaction against it.

    What is really going wrong requires the way the political parties work and present themselves to change thoroughly. That’s nothing (or at least almost nothing) to do with the formal constitution.

    The reaction of some to this years Liberal Democrats conference – that it was a bad thing because it wasn’t some rally in which we all cheered on the Leader and some Five Year Plan he was putting forward – indicates the real lessons just have not been learnt. Changing the UK constitution while carrying on with this model of political party, a cross between Leninism and MBAism, means we won’t have solved the problem, and when it gets worse, these constitutional reforms, which are valuable in their own right, will probably be blamed for it.

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