How can we bring the UK's political elite under democratic control?

The pressure group Compass have launched a new campaign in Britain. Will it work?
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
1 August 2011

A new campaign has been launched for a citizens jury of 1,000 people to decide what the public interest is and make our “feral” political elite accountable to the people. It is signed by some of my most favourite people, friends and colleagues. In my view anything that stirs things up and gets people thinking about the wider, systemic nature of the political crisis in Britain, is very welcome indeed.

But I must admit to a sense of relief that I wasn’t asked to sign. I am entirely in support of the spirit of opposition it expresses but troubled by the way they have gone about it.

I’ll start with the fundamental principle of organising opposition in the present. At the start of the year I wrote a piece warning 38 Degrees against becoming the victim of their success. This was after their brilliant save the forest campaign, which I’d signed when it launched. Now that they had broken through half a million supporters 38 Degrees needed to be careful, precisely because their exceptionally effective online activity, not to trample on others or claim all the credit from smaller campaigns on the ground. In the age of a mendacious, manipulative coalition government, what is needed is to campaign together not compete, in open, generous alliances of opposition. I’m glad to say that 38 Degrees are showing sensitivity about sharing credit and supporting partners.

In this context, the way Compass – for it is they – have gone about launching the Jury campaign is weird. Given its ambitious call for a ‘convention’ what is needed is an alliance of organisations and networks, not just a call by relatively familiar political intellectuals, especially if we are to increase the personal influence of these intellectuals, as we need to do. The call should have been backed by 38 Degrees, UKUncut, Unlock Democracy, the Fabians, activist blogs like Liberal Conspiracy and a big list of others including the Campaign for an English Parliament and Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish organisations. The latter are very important for any democratic critique of the failure of the political elite to “care for the common life of our country” as the statement puts it. Because we must now take on board the fact that there are different national elites in the UK with their own parliaments.

Instead, the campaign does not even have its own url and webpage, and to support it you are sent on the day of its launch to the second item on the home page of Compass, where you are invited to email the group in order to sign the petition. 

This gives the impression of it being simply an organisational branding or positioning exercise.

I am also uneasy about the strategy that the Compass initiative advocates.  It is not that I am against using citizens juries and deliberative assemblies. I was amongst the first to set out the case for their use at the highest level of power in the mid-nineties, advocating their use to replace the Lords (to the derision of some of the signatories at the time). This is one of the best things about the proposal.

What seems wrong is the way its agenda has been set in advance. This seems like repeating the mistake of Power2010 after the expenses crisis, which set about using citizens input and deliberation to draw up a ‘pledge card’ of demands in the 2010 election.

Like Power2010, only even more so, the Compass campaign has come up with an answer to people’s anger before that anger is fully expressed. What if the public’s more profound concern is with corporate power as such rather than the elite’s disregard of the “public interest test” in dealing with it? What will the wider public make of the agenda of the five issues the call sets out for the 1,000 strong citizens jury to deliberate upon? It is a list that stipulates in advance the great questions needed to be addressed to bring our masters to heel. But it omits liberty, the database state, the national question, immigration. And the EU as well, which is arguably undemocratic, corrupt and an influential aspect of elite control in the UK.

What we need is an open democratic process that is fearless and trusts the public, asking them what they want addressed. I am not saying I will like the answers to these questions. But experience shows that it is inviting failure to launch a general campaign in a way that can be perceived as limiting the issues citizens must now confront to make power accountable.

NB: Neal Lawson and Dan Leighton have responded fully (and I have replied briefly) in a new post here

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