Next steps for Britain's 'Jury of the People': a response to Anthony Barnett

An alliance of progressive organisations in Britain have launched a campaign for a People’s Jury to establish and uphold the “public interest”. Here, the head of Compass answers Anthony Barnett’s concerns about the initiative
Neal Lawson
4 August 2011

Anthony Barnett has engaged in an article in OurKingdom with our call for a People’s Jury to determine once again what is in the public interest with his usual constructively critical vigor.

The campaign was launched on Monday here in the Guardian to try and develop momentum for a conversation about the systematic transfer, over the last three or four decades, of interest from the public to the private realm. A space had been opened up by the Murdoch media scandal – but would be soon closed down without an institutional response.

Let's start by trying to clear up some of Anthony’s concerns. He should have been one of the first to be asked to sign.  He wasn’t because we had different lists and the usual confusion when you try and get these things done in a hurry with no budget and loads of other things to do as well – banking reform and a Plan B for the economy to name but two. 

Anthony says the way we went about launching is ‘weird’ in that it wasn’t an alliance. But an alliance was exactly what we were aiming for – again in hurry.  Most of the people Anthony mentions we asked, though we inevitably missed some in the rush. The URL, as he says, was originally part of the Compass site, again because of speed and cost – but has now been transferred to It will become totally separate as soon as time and funds allow.  

There is an overall impression, says Anthony, that this is simply an organisational branding or positioning exercise for Compass. 

First off, the initiative was jointly set up by Compass and nef (New Economics Foundation). Secondly, this really isn’t how Compass operates (nor nef in our opinion) and it’s a failure if that is what we have communicated. The branding, as you will see from the site, is unique and particular to the campaign. Compass spends all of its time trying to build alliances out of silos; trying to get those who believe in a more equal, or sustainably or democratic world to work together, believing they will fail on their own. This means trying to unite people under common narratives and campaigns – and hopefully eventually programmes. Hence the Progressive Alliance meetings every month and our annual conference that showcases dozens of other organisations. We are trying to make progressive ideas and campaigning more effective. The public interest is a perfect example of this, where the sum can be greater than the progressive parts of what we currently have. It is popular and speaks to the moment. Thousands of people have signed up, tweeted and ‘liked’ on Facebook.

Opening up the Pandora’s box of the meaning and application of “public interest tests” over policy making has the potential to speak across the self-avowed coalition of progressives to a much wider constituency of interests and affiliations. And this takes us to an issue of principle rather than presentation that has profound challenges as well as opportunities, particularly for the type of campaign groups Anthony rightly chastises us for not being effective enough in including in the campaign launch.

Anthony is right that any intervention invoking the name of the public needs to be based from start to finish on “an open democratic process that is fearless and trusts the public”. Yet he misses something important when he adds, “asking them what they want addressed”. It would be disingenuous to leave matters quite so open. Any campaign comes with a lens through which it views an issue and it is naïve to claim otherwise. Indeed, campaigners from the Tax Payers Alliance to Compass, and elected politicians of all stripes, regularly claim to be acting in or upholding the public interest; you’d be hard pressed to find a well-meaning activist that doesn’t think their cause represents the wider public interest. And this is where we need to be clear about what parameters an initiative aimed at clarifying public interests in economic and political decisions is working within.

We have an agenda but it is an agenda that is evolving as the idea gathers pace. But more fundamentally the agenda determining what jurors would deliberate on would be thoroughly revised due to the very nature of the way we are framing this initiative.

It is here where we think Anthony is being overly dismissive on an issue of substance rather than process, when he asks “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?”

The notion of a “public interest test” is the lens through which we intend to ask people to think about the issues they will be discussing and deciding upon. The implications their decisions have, what this would entail, and how it will be monitored and enforced, may well raise a whole host of issues about corporate governance, ownership, sanction of corporate or political corruption, constitutional reform or indeed profound legal questions concerning our relationship to the EU, with respect to social or economic rights. Yet we shouldn’t and don’t assume that the answers they arrive at will necessarily speak to any of the particular hobbyhorses of the progressive left – Compass included. Of the many lessons to be learned from the AV referendum is the danger of posing solutions without a convincing account of the problem. And the problems we face today are far bigger and more complicated than any particular solution could possibly do justice to.

By holding a jury on public interest tests in corporate and political life we are from the offset seeking people’s judgment on a particular set of problems and challenges that relate to both the conduct of economic and political elites and the outcomes of the decisions they make in our name. There is clearly a plurality of potentially valid and conflicting ways of understanding the public interest on any particular issue. Yet while it can mean many things it cannot just mean anything the public, as mass of individuals, competing interest groups or well intentioned progressive campaign groups is interested in. Invoking the term speaks to a number of orientating principles and outcomes that we are seeking public judgment on.

In rightly taking us to task for seeming to precook the agenda, Anthony throws the baby out with the bathwater. He seems to suggest that the only way an initiative of this sort could be legitimate is to ask our randomly selected citizens – “what is that bothers you most about political and economic life and how should we fix it?” That approach makes what is already a vague proposition even vaguer still. By not engaging with the implications of talking about the public interest, rather than say democracy or liberty, Anthony misses something important about what distinguishes this initiative from those of Power 2010 or the convention on Modern Liberty. While the jury will stand or fall by the quality of the process, the question they would be tasked with answering is conceptually distinct from liberty or democracy – though both are inextricably linked to it.

We are seeking to engage citizens on what they think it would mean for particular decision-making processes and outcomes to be in the public interest. Unlike a convention on liberty or democracy, there is not a well-established list of reforms or demands that fit within the rubric of the public interest. This is in part because the term is notoriously slippery, being as it is an object of unresolved philosophical contestation since antiquity. Yet much the same could be said for liberty or democracy. The big difference is that whereas liberty and democracy are at the centre of our political discourse, the idea of the public interest has been cast out of the modern social scientific lexicon due in part because of its ostensible lack of precision and also because of the neo-liberal onslaught on the cultural, political and economic landscape of the nation. The apogee of this thinking came with New Labor’s decision in 2002 to formally scrap the “public interest test” in corporate mergers and replace it with a competiveness test. Yet if it is a term that economists and policy makers can’t live with, it is a term society can’t live without. Having sought to pare down most if not all questions of public policy to “objective” technocratic tests of economic efficiency, choice and competiveness, our politicians have lost the ability to think meaningfully outside of these constraints.

One of the most telling comments from Gordon Brown at the tale end of his premiership, buried in his tin-eared response to Ms Duffy on immigration, was on financial services and regulation:

“And everybody in the City was saying, and all the complaints I was getting from the people was, ’look, you’re actually regulating them too much’. And actually the truth is that globally and nationally we should have been regulating them more.” So I’ve learnt from that. So you don’t listen to the industry when they say, ’This is good for us’. You’ve got to talk about the whole public interest.”

Since Hackgate, we are not wanting for politicians or commentators talking about the public interest. Yet they have very little to say about what it would actually mean for specific decisions if they were based on taking into account “the whole public interest”. Calls to break up the banks or Murdoch’s media empire surely speak to something important about concentrations of power acting against the public interest. But they all too rarely communicate what this is or effectively engage outside of those that already agree with them.

Talking about the public interest is a specific attempt to think outside of these narrow, ideologically motivated blinkers. Where to start though? Do we or the other signatories to the statement have unique access to what it means for a policy or form of ownership to be in the public interest? Alas, no. Though we do share a conviction that you can’t pose the question, let alone work towards a solution, from the narrow assumption that economic growth and efficiency are all that can safely be said about the matter.

Rather, we’d start with a very broad definition, such as that proposed by Barry Bozeman, a rare example of an academic who has sought to systematically define and rehabilitate the term after the demolition job undertaken by public choice theorists since the late 1960s. He suggest that “in a particular context, the public interest refers to the outcomes best serving the long run survival and well-being of a social collective construed as a ‘public’ ”. Bozeman follows the great American progressive John Dewey when he says the “public interest” cannot be known in any important sense in the absence of social inquiry, public discussion and debate:

“The public interest is an ideal that is given shape, on a case by case basis, by a public motivated to secure its common interests as a public. This commitment, in turn, encourages the preservation of the public by highlighting common interests and promoting dialogue among its members”

The gambit of the citizens jury proposal is that the convergence of opinion we are now seeing on the right as well as the left against corporate oligarchies is the emergence of a “public” that has been provoked into existence to “secure its common interests”. Joseph Stiglitz crystallized the problem more concisely than anyone else: all the major economic and political decisions are taken of, by and for, the richest 1.0%. Money begets power, which begets more money, creating a vicious cycle in which regulators become captured by the regulated and conflicts of interest multiply across the body politic. While it is not surprising to hear Stiglitz describe the world in these terms, it is nothing short of astonishing that the likes of Charles Moore, Ferdinand Mount and even Mervyn King express themselves in strikingly similar terms. Moore’s article, “Why I’m starting to think the left may be right” sent ripples through the right wing blogosphere and purportedly had certain Downing Street advisors nodding in vexed agreement.

We have no idea whether we will see a convergence of agreement on the prognosis to what is becoming an increasingly shared diagnosis. But frankly this is where the likes of us need to make way for the citizen’s jury initiative we are proposing.

The only legitimate role those who have launched and signed the statement have in this politically fluid situation is precisely to agitate for a concerned public to come together and then enable them to highlight their own common interests with respect to the issues they choose to investigate. As an emerging public ourselves we can only start by suggesting the issues that have motivated us to come together in the first place. Whether our proposed citizens jurors would agree remains to be seen. The best the likes of Compass, nef and other progressive campaigners can do is set up the space, raise the profile and then let the process, overseen by a robustly independent secretariat, take over.

The next steps we are thinking about include

  • mapping different concepts of the public interest for commonalities and differences
  • outlining why the new elites are different form the past in terms of scale and interconnectedness
  • considering how a Jury of 1000 could work, ensuring the independence of a secretariat
  • considering how the campaign fits with other reforms and institutions we well as how this process extends outwards into the public spheres of conventional and new media
  • continuing to build support in terms of organisations and quality and quantity of names. 

We will develop a steering committee of people and organisations to help make all this work: the alliance Anthony rightly calls for. 

If anyone has any ideas or thoughts, please get in touch.

NB: Gerry Hassan discusses this exchange in a post here.

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