Democracy from a democracy campaigner’s point of view – by Jenny Cronin

The current campaigning environment nationwide on devolution and democracy includes activity at local, regional and national levels though the various contexts and perspectives are not well linked to each other.  Devolution is a pivotal part of the democracy debates and campaigns but is not always perceived so, particularly since George Osborne imposed his own perverse definition.

UK political parties do not wholeheartedly engage with these agendas either, except small parties with little or no parliamentary representation and/or they are Scottish or Welsh and that is important. The Conservative government is hostile to many of the campaigning aims, a posture that they will presumably maintain while in power until 2020.

The absence of those just referenced from the democracy and devolution conversations indicates the heightened importance of seeking out the faces and voices of people in civil society precisely because they are here, rarely consulted and citizens just like us.

As Paul Salveson outlined in his contribution to the White Rose Consortium conference in Leeds Power to The North?  (22 January 2016):

  • There is popular support for power out of London
  • There is antagonism to old style politics
  • People do want democratic devolution
  • Identities operate on lots of different levels
  • People don’t respond to the technocratic
  • Regions have more than one economy
  • People define their citizenship in different ways
  • A Constitutional Convention may be a bit too formal; new ways to bring people into the conversation and ways of doing politics are needed

There is an increasing range of initiatives and campaigns which focus on connecting with citizens’ perspectives:

Unlock Democracy’s strategy for 2016-2020 includes the campaign: “We the People makes the case for citizen led, wholesale reform of our political system. It will build on the People’s Charter 2015 that was written with over 900 people as a part of the Unlock Magna Carta project….We want people campaigning on the NHS, or fracking or housing to see how our system denies ordinary people a real say on the issues that matter to them.”  More at: www.unlockdemocracy.org/strategy

There are signs in other national, regional and local campaigning organisations, that forging active links and networks is a feature of their strategies. Seeing democratic reform as key to the issues that pre-occupy them is becoming more commonplace. For example, Friends of the Earth have a policy statement on devolution and democracyhttps://www.foe.co.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/policy-position-democracy-devolution-76596.pdf

The Greater Manchester Referendum Campaign for Democratic Devolution has supporters and contributors who have coalesced from many routes – party politics, trade unions, university research, independent research bodies, faith groups, charitable organisations and a wide range of one- or multi- issue campaigns.

One of their initiatives is: The People’s Plan ….…. ‘ A People’s Plan for Democratic Devolution’ will “canvass the opinions of as many residents of the relevant area as possible, gather their specific policy suggestions across any topic they wish to make a submission on….then form a list of specific policy proposals that are linked directly with public input…. Candidates for public office, including that of Mayor of a City Region, can then be presented with the ‘People’s Plan’ for comment ….”  More at: www.unlockdemocracy.org/blog

That brings us to the ideas and campaigns related to Citizens’ Conventions and the Constitution. See the link below for an example of the Assemblies for Democracy approach to a Citizens’ Convention on the Constitution. http://assembliesfordemocracy.org/2016/01/20/citizens-convention-on-the-constitution-planning-group. They express an inclusive approach emphasising that working with other campaigns and organisations is important. They were represented in the Compass consultation mentioned below.

Rolling Thunder A movement to transform our democracy” is now emerging partly as a result of the Compass initiated consultation event in January 2016 with democracy activists, researchers and politicians in which Jon Trickett the Shadow Minister for Local Government and a Constitutional Convention outlined a proposal to connect the Labour Party’s commitment to a Constitutional Convention with related grass roots activity.

Rolling Thunder aims to stimulate “a new public understanding of the principles of democracy, liberty, human rights and citizenship in a digital age and that these issues gain sufficient energy and commitment to make Britain a modern democracy, starting now and using the Constitutional Convention as a focus….we hope to provoke a spontaneous… uprising with groups and initiatives springing up, in communities, across campaigning organisations and through the political parties…”

It is said that the proposed Constitutional Convention (mentioned above), supported by a cross-party coalition and led by Jon Trickett is likely to be announced in May 2016 and could take 12-18 months to deliberate and report.

Democracy Matters: Citizen Assembly pilots

Between October and November 2015, two pilot assemblies ran in Sheffield (Assembly North) and Southampton (Assembly South). The project in which the citizen participants were key, was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

The combination of the perspectives of the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) represented by Chief Executive Katie Ghose and academic research led by Professor Matthew Flinders of Sheffield University made for an important partnership and was also combined with the resources of researchers from three other universities and other professionals, politicians and volunteers who acted as consultants, researchers, facilitators, note takers to the assemblies.

The exercise was prompted by the ‘devolution deals’ around England being conducted by the government and what it might imply for the future of decentralisation, devolution and democracy in our society. In the mix also was the growing evidence of the public’s distrust in and distancing from politics as currently practised in Westminster in particular; and a view that devolution could help economic growth in England outside London and the South East, for instance.

For example: Assembly North considered questions surrounding geographic scale of devolution; various options in terms of governance of English regions; powers and policy areas that should be located at regional level; what consistency was shown between views on the above and a wider range of constitutional reforms; and whether the ‘devo deal’ (Sheffield City Region) on offer should be accepted or rejected in favour of negotiating a better deal.

Reports are available at: http://citizensassembly.co.uk. The website includes resources used with and by the assemblies’ members in the stages of their learning, consultation and deliberation.  http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/391972/ is the reference to download the full research report: Democracy Matters, Lessons from the 2015 Citizens’ Assemblies on English Devolution. The formal launch of the report in Westminster took place on 13 April 2016 in the presence of MPs of all political parties and some of the Assemblies’ members.

Below are extracts from an article on the Constitution Unit website about a presentation on the project given by Prof Alan Renwick and Katie Ghose:

….Two models of citizens’ assemblies were tested: Assembly North, based in Sheffield, was a ‘pure’ citizen assembly (drawing on the Canadian model) comprising 32 members of the public; Assembly South, based in Southampton, was a ‘mixed’ assembly (drawing on the Irish model) comprising 23 ordinary citizens and six local councillors.

….Some politicians are sceptical about ordinary citizens’ ability to engage in high-quality deliberation, but the evidence from the assembly pilot points to the contrary: regular citizens are capable of building up great understanding of a complex issue, carefully weighing the strengths and weaknesses of different options, and coming to coherent, grounded conclusions.

….The project demonstrated the public’s appetite for deliberative democracy, highlighted in the high retention rate among citizens’ assembly members. Once participants became  invested in the process, they wanted to return.

Go to: https://constitution-unit.com/2016/02/18/a-constitutional-convention-for-the-uk-what-we-can-learn-from-two-pilots for the full article.

Gathering together this impression of a number of current democracy and devolution initiatives, in the knowledge that there are also others that could be cited, should be regarded as encouraging not confusing. I don’t think it matters that they’re coming from a variety of starting points. That is a strength and what is also a strength is that they are focussed on us the citizens and the ideas and opinions we want to put forward, listen to, learn about, deliberate and decide upon with open and realistic attitudes coming from lived experience and not clouded by a  culture of political deceit and distrust.

Jenny Cronin

Unlock Democracy Greater Manchester

26/04/16

 

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