The banner held up by two bold activists at the Conservative Party conference in October 2022, asked “Who voted for this?”. Intentionally or not, the question hinted at problems with our democratic system that run far deeper even than those presented by the dotty policies at which the banner was aimed.
The question lies at the cusp of an old and a new politics, of conventional and innovative ways of translating the wishes of citizens into policies designed to fulfil them. The relationship between citizens’ wishes and enacted policy is becoming increasingly estranged. Electoral representation as currently practised simply does not work. As Jon Alexander, founder of the New Citizenship Project says:
“Right now, we live in what is at best a consumerised democracy, where politicians are forced to pretend they have all the answers, and a citizen’s only agency is an occasional opportunity to choose the best from what are all too often a bad set of options.”
One response to this is the growing call for proportional representation (PR) to be used for parliamentary elections. That the share of votes a party receives should be matched by the share of seats it gains seems a no-brainer. Yet the UK sticks by the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system which gave the Conservatives an 80 seat majority in the 2019 general election while receiving only 43.6% of the votes cast. Under FPTP, both votes for losing candidates and votes beyond those needed to win are effectively wasted. In the 2019 election, 71.2% of votes were wasted in this way. In Europe, only the UK and the dictatorship of Belarus seem content with so unfair a system.
PR would certainly provide the voter with reassurance that their vote actually counted, that their voice stood a chance of being heard at the table. But it wouldn’t guarantee it would make any difference; the gap between voter and representative is still too wide and prone to interference and attenuation, however well-meaning the representative. And the policy-making process, focused as it is at the topmost level, is no less remote from the citizen than it has always been.
While a diversity of voices around the table is undoubtedly more democratic, it does little to support informed policy-making. This is still left to the increasingly acrimonious and vacuous verbal jousting of the Chamber of the House of Commons. A mechanism is needed, say critics of the status quo, to bring the citizen and policy-making closer together. A forum where citizens themselves can explore issues that concern them, aided by impartial experts who can explain the finer details, where they can discuss and formulate policy recommendations to present to the legislature.
A citizens’ assembly.
In contrast to an elected MP, a citizens’ assembly can be made highly representative of the community from which they are drawn, through a randomising process known as sortition. Sortition defines the demographic criteria required of participants, establishes a pool of qualifying individuals and invites them to participate. Those in the final list will be recompensed for their time and, where necessary, travel and childcare expenses.
In the last twenty years, there have been almost six hundred examples worldwide of such a forum. From Austria to Australia, from Ireland to India, issues as parochial as the local water supply or as all-embracing as abortion, have been deliberated upon by groups of ordinary citizens, sometimes with revolutionary results. It was two citizens’ assemblies in the Irish Republic that resulted in the legalisation of same-sex marriage and of abortion. In the UK, the Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care in 2018 commissioned by the Health and Social Care and the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committees, concluded that it had been a marked success.
“The Citizens’ Assembly process has been invaluable and could mark a new way of involving the public in how we make decisions in the future. Assembly members have shown that through dialogue, considered thinking and debate it is possible to achieve consensus on solutions for seemingly intractable problems.”
But what if citizens find that time is too scarce for them to engage with such a process? There are two further progressive initiatives which would complete the package of reforms needed to see democracy revitalised through citizen participation. One is the four-day week, a trial of which in the UK is due to complete at the end of November. The other is Universal Basic Income (UBI), a targeted trial of which is currently under way in Wales. Either or both of these initiatives would not only liberate individuals to engage in citizen-based policy-making, but also to undertake other personal and social activities, including artistic and cultural pursuits, social care and community work, currently inhibited by the need to work.
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