Making a new constitution: The Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy: Part 1

Last week, we successfully defended the UK parliament. But to get out of the ongoing constitutional crises, we need in-depth longer term thinking. A current initiative deserves greater attention. (Part one of a two part series).

Stuart White
30 September 2019, 3.32pm
Pro and anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament as MPs return last week
Wiktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/PA Images

The immediate response to Boris Johnson’s ultimately blocked prorogation of Parliament was, quite rightly, to defend Parliament. In a democracy, the power to decide when a Parliament meets properly rests with parliamentarians, not with the executive branch of government / the Prime Minister, nor the Crown. Regardless of whether one is for Leave or Remain, this basic democratic principle had to be defended.

Although UK Supreme Court has thankfully judged Johnson’s manoeuvre to be unlawful, it reflects a wider, deeper set of problems with the UK’s constitution - the lack of clear and systematic codification of basic democratic principles.

So having successfully defended Parliament we need now to take up the wider and deeper project of codifying the constitution. We need to collect the scattered bits of written and unwritten rules we have, and what we want to have in terms of better rules and institutions, in one written and entrenched legal document, as is the case in most other democratic countries. To have legitimacy this needs to be a democratic process with the public centre-stage, not the result of an elite huddle or government fix.

In her scintillating speech in the House of Commons on the eve of its prorogation on September 3, Caroline Lucas made the point exactly:

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“One of the many reasons why we are in this crisis is that we do not have a codified written constitution. It is only the unwritten, uncodified understandings that protect the body politic from regressing to government with minimal checks, balances and accountability. Up to now we have had to depend on people playing by the rules. Well, now we have a Government who are not playing by the rules. We now need more than ever a written constitution drawn up by a democratic citizens’ convention that will put people at the heart of our politics for the first time in UK history.”

But how to do this? How do the people – or peoples – of the UK make a new, codified constitution?

The scope of the challenge can seem daunting. It is daunting.

Luckily, however, we are not starting completely from scratch.

The Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy was launched early in August, and conceived long before the present crisis. It is probably the best place to start to look for a model of how to make a new, codified constitution with the public at the centre of the process.

In this two-part set of articles I will first set out what the Convention is, and in Part 2, discuss its strengths and weaknesses and how it might be better structured to work in the contemporary UK.

Where did the idea of a ‘constitutional convention’ come from?

Discussion of creating an assembly to propose reform of the UK’s political system – a ‘constitutional convention’ - began prior to the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland. The focus at this stage was mainly on the ‘national question’ of how to formally define - and entrench - a new division of power and sovereignty between the UK’s nations. The 2014 referendum itself prompted further interest in a convention. In the run-up to the 2015 UK general election, a number of parties – including Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Greens – supported creating a convention of some sort. openDemocracy UK’s debate series, ‘The Great Charter Convention’, which ran through 2015, carried a number of articles on this theme.

The Conservative victory in 2015 put pay to talk of a government-sponsored convention. But some wondered if a convention of some sort could be launched independently of government. The former Labour MP, Graham Allen, who stepped down from the UK Parliament in 2017 after many years as a committed campaigner for democratic reform, worked hard to keep the idea alive, supported by many others, such as Assemblies for Democracy.

The Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy, which launched publicly in August, is one result of these efforts. The project has an academic home at King’s College, London. The initial research for the project was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Convention itself is to be funded by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust.

What is the Convention?

The Convention is currently proposed as a two-year process designed to embody state of the art ideas about deliberative democracy, to animate and inform a public debate about democratic reform in the UK and to issue in actual legislative changes.

The structure of the Convention is still in progress, but the design team helpfully issued a Users’ Manual in August as the basis for comment and constructive criticism. Based on the User’s Manual, here is a quick summary of the proposed Convention’s main features.

The Convention’s agenda. The Convention will address one key question: ‘What are the key problems with democratic institutions in the UK and how should they be addressed?’

While the Convention will have some power to set its own agenda once it gets going, there is a clear opening agenda which includes five key items: (1) reform of the House of Lords/second chamber; (2) reform of the voting system to the House of Commons; (3) ‘Reviewing the relationship between central and local government, and the question of devolution for England’; (4) the financing of political parties and campaigns; and (5) ‘Examining the legal recognition given to some constitutional provisions, including individual rights’.

Certain things are also definitely off the agenda. The Convention is to focus on political process rather than, say, economic policy. It is not to consider Brexit.

The use of Citizens’ Assemblies. The Convention will make significant use of Citizens’ Assemblies (CAs) to deliberate and make proposals. As discussed elsewhere at openDemocracy UK (for example, here, here, here, here, and here), CAs are bodies of citizens chosen on a near-random basis from the population (typically, from the electoral register) so as to be descriptively representative of the citizen population in terms of characteristics such as gender, race and location. CAs also use carefully structured and facilitated processes of discussion, moving through phases of learning about a topic, hearing testimony and gathering evidence, before discussing what has been learnt and formulating a proposal. CAs have a record of effective use in constitutional discussions in the Irish Republic where they were central in bringing about recent amendments to the Irish constitution concerning same-sex marriage and abortion.

The four stages of the Convention. The Convention process will have four stages, together taking up two years, presently scheduled to begin in 2020. (Again, the exact timing might be affected by political developments.)

Stage 1 consists of the ‘UK Conversation’, which will see the organisers of the Convention attempt to reach out to civil society groups and stimulate a host of local public meetings at which people will bring their ideas about the political system to the table. The Users’ Manual stresses the need to make these meetings inclusive, reaching groups who are alienated or disengaged from mainstream politics. The apparent goals of this stage are to help engage the wider public with the Convention, and to use discussions to further shape the Convention’s agenda.

Stage 2 consists of the ‘Prioritisation Conference’. This will be a CA of 100 citizens. It will meet once, over one weekend, to make the final decision on the Convention’s agenda, drawing on the results of the UK Conversation and (presumably) bearing in mind the five key items listed above.

Stage 3 next consists of a number of ‘Thematic Assemblies’. These will be a number of discrete CAs, each of 50 citizens. Each Thematic CA will take up one of the issues identified in stage 2. Each CA will draw its membership from the whole of the UK – an important point I will return to below. Each of these Thematic CAs is to meet, over weekends, six times over a six month period.

Stage 4 is the ‘UK Summit’. This will bring together all the people who participated in the Thematic CAs at stage 3 to discuss and vote on their respective recommendations and so produce a single package of proposals. It will meet once, over a single weekend. Any tensions between the proposals of the individual Thematic CAs will have to be resolved at this stage.

Back to Parliament. The initiative next returns to the UK Parliament. Five leading Parliamentarians have already indicated their support for the Convention and will seek to get their respective parties to include in future election manifestos a commitment to put the Convention’s recommendations to a vote in Parliament. The five are: Caroline Lucas (Greens), Vince Cable (Lib Dems), Tom Watson (Labour), Dominic Grieve (Conservatives, though currently without the Tory whip) and David Davis (Conservatives). (The draft envisages the next election as happening in 2022. Obviously the likelihood of an election before then means that this part of the process may well have to be revised.) The hope is that the Convention’s recommendations will be voted on, and carry a majority, in Parliament.

So, this is what the proposed Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy is. In the next part of this two-part series, I will ask how far this is a good, potentially effective model for renewing UK democracy.

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