Graham Allen argues that the UK's democracy would benefit from adopting a deliberative democratic approach with the use of Citizens' Conventions.
The article is introduced by SLF Council member, Jon Alexander.
Introduction by Jon Alexander
I first met Graham Allen in 2014 when my company, the New Citizenship Project, was in its early days, and he invited us into Parliament to give evidence to the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform. He struck me then not just as a highly capable politician, but as a man committed to learning and exploring, and one remarkably clear-eyed in the face of challenges which he anticipated with remarkable foresight.
Since then, Graham has become one of the world’s leading advocates of deliberative democracy, while at the same time challenging those of us who hope to consider ourselves pioneers of this approach. He has also become a practitioner himself, leading the development of what I think is one of the most exciting and biggest ideas in British politics today: the Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy that he discusses in this piece. In my eyes, it is an idea that if enacted could take politics in this country to a whole new level, building on the heritage of the Magna Carta, the mother of Parliaments, the Putney Debates and more to position us once again as world leaders in democracy.
In our recent Social Liberal Forum report, Citizens’ Britain: A radical agenda for the 2020s, Ian Kearns and I set out a narrative for a new kind of participatory politics that would be hugely popular in this country, of which deliberative processes in general would be a major part - and of which the specific idea of a Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy would be a hugely powerful expression.
Main Article by Graham Allen
Democracy is under threat, not least because it has failed to evolve. But the next era of democracy is taking shape - and a Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy is the way to bring that new mode of democracy to these proud islands.
Over recent years, there has been growing noise around the concept of “deliberative democracy”. Perhaps the best expression is the OECD report, Catching the Deliberative Wave, published in June 2020. It is an impressive piece of work, bringing together nearly 300 case studies of deliberative processes from across OECD nations to understand best practice and establish principles for this kind of approach going forward.
Deliberative democracy takes many forms, but at its core, it sees a group of ordinary citizens come together to deliberate on a particular issue or set of issues, and make recommendations to the relevant government. A large number of citizens are invited at random, then the final group is selected such that the whole group is representative of the national population on a number of key demographic attributes. This process is called sortition; it produces what are known as “mini publics”. This group then learns about, discusses, and forms considered recommendations on key issues that only then go to elected representatives. Stanford professor James Fishkin, one of the original pioneers, calls it “democracy under good conditions”. It is the polar opposite of tokenistic “consultation”, which only sees citizens invited to share views once decisions have in effect already been made; and is a powerful complement to established representative processes such as elections and referenda.
As a former Member of Parliament, I have gone from a sceptic to being one of the most passionate advocates: I believe deliberative democracy is the missing link to reunite citizens with their representative democracy. As I now see it, deliberative processes are not just a tool to achieve a goal but also central to building the culture of democracy itself. Democracy must adapt as a living, growing organism, capable of renewal, where citizens’ engagement between elections is as important to the health of a modern democracy as the vote itself. Citizens will develop their civic capacities by having opportunities to participate in decision making.
As autocrats and populists move in and threaten complacent and unresponsive democracies, it becomes ever more evident that deliberative democracy provides the key to not just retaining, but also developing our democracy for the next 100 years. This is democracy defending itself, improving itself, making itself more relevant and fighting back.
I first encountered deliberative democracy as Chair of the UK Parliament’s Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee 2010-2015, which worked with King’s College London. Through this I met many of the pioneers of deliberative democracy - David van Reybrouck, James Fishkin, newDemocracy Foundation in Australia, Claudia Chwalisz from the OECD, Tim Hughes and his team at Involve, SLF Council Member and New Citizenship Project Director Jon Alexander, and many more - and over time began to work on an idea: a Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy.
This would see a representative group of citizens - not just activists or politicians - come together to develop recommendations as to the fundamental rules and processes by which our democracy functions. The questions that would be considered might include: How often should we have elections? What should the voting system be? How should the Upper House work? In line with the OECD best practice recommendations, this process would trust citizens to develop and deliver recommendations, with a commitment to consider and respond to them publicly - not necessarily to adopt them in full, but if not, to say why not.
Having designed the process, the next task was to create a solid partnership between citizens and their elected representatives and overcome the mutual fear that has paralysed that relationship. We had a breakthrough in 2019 when all the main UK-wide parties committed in their 2019 Manifestos to some sort of review of our democracy. This meant whichever party or parties formed the next Government would be pledged to take this forward – so, happily, nationalising our concept. The winning Conservatives promised in the 2019 election to set up The Commission on the Constitution, Democracy and Rights (The Commission). This enabled us to pivot towards fulfilling for citizens the stated ambition of Government.
After the election, the Prime Minister recommitted to setting up The Commission to review the state of democracy in the country. At that point, we sharply refocused on working through how citizens would meaningfully be engaged in this process of review of their democracy, not in protest from outside but as equals putting their views as valued partners. A trusting partnership is vital and must include The Commission, Parliament, Government and our citizens. It is that meaningful engagement that is realised in the Proposal which the CCUKDemocracy sent to the Prime Minister in October 2020, and to Michael Gove at the Cabinet Office, who is the relevant Secretary of State. The conversation with the politicians and civil servants goes on and we look forward to the Government’s positive reply.
If we achieve our aim, much of it will be due to the work of our political partners in the UK, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, the Labour Party, and the Conservative Party over the last five years. Leading members of each of those parties supported our work and signed our Proposal. Patient and persistent communication and explanation continues with individual elected representatives, ministers and All-Party Groups. We will create the basis for political trust and understanding by tying into the political level. It will help if we make Parliaments as well as Governments part of the negotiation. The prize is an agreement to consider all - and act on many - of the recommendations and ideas that the citizens in their Convention will come up with.
After CCUKDemocracy’s 5 year journey, we can say to our elected politicians that, when you decide it is time, we will produce a beautiful gift for you - one you could not make for yourselves – the recommendations of our citizens on the future of UK democracy. Free from stultifying party discipline and frenzied media feeding, we will be able to propose practical answers to some of our hardest problems. What you do with it is a matter for you. All we ask in return is that you treat it seriously and respectfully.
As a former Member of Parliament for 30 years, I know that deliberative democracy has potential to liberate public representatives to fulfil their potential.
My key message for everyone involved in deliberative democracy is this: sort out the political endgame before you do any further work. Without that, we will be producing nice reports for our own edification but dislocated from real change. This is a disillusioning waste of citizens’ time which devalues the potency of Deliberative Democracy. It is vital that our politicians are comfortable with the process and can work with a set of sensible and practical recommendations. Governments and Parliaments will then have enough faith in the process that they can agree in advance to respect and meaningfully consider what the citizens have put forward. We can ask for no more than that.
Citizens need to suspend cynicism and meaningfully engage; Government must value legitimacy and sustainability above wielding a crushing majority; Parliamentarians should welcome a refreshing breathing space for friendly and helpful external views; pioneers in the field can let go of the ownership of their baby and take joy from its spread and popularity. We have much to lose if we shrink back into the comfort zones that have led us to this place, yet we have a world to win if we can work together.
The Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy has been five years in design and development. It is worth the wait. Doing it well means that it can be the first of many. Perhaps one day, every Parliamentary Bill will have its own 40-day pre-legislative Citizens Convention and serving on them will be as much a part of our civic culture as is jury service. When citizens deliberation becomes central to our democratic life every one of the partners will gain.
As a former representative but now one proud citizen among many, I say to politicians on behalf of my fellow citizens: We are ready to take the test when you are.
Graham Allen was Labour MP for Nottingham North, 1987-2017 and was the Chair of the Political & Constitutional Reform Select Committee, 2010-2015. He serves on the Advisory Board of the Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy.