Over the past couple of weeks, as the referendum campaign reached its climax in Scotland, a concept has suddenly started springing up all over the place in English political debate: the idea of a constitutional convention. (The Welsh National Assembly called for UK-wide constitutional convention in 2012.)
In a letter to The Times on September 10, 19 experts on UK democracy set the proposal out as follows:
‘It is time for a UK-wide constitutional convention, on the lines of recent conventions in Ireland and Iceland, that gives citizens a say in shaping the future. Such a process needs the support of all the political parties, but it must retain its independence from them.’
Calls, similar in content or spirit, have come from Nick Pearce of IPPR, Compass, Rebecca Johnson and Rupert Read, Caroline Lucas, Polly Toynbee, Jon Wilson, and Anthony Painter, to name but some. I strongly agree with these calls. A post-referendum political settlement should not be left to the party politicians alone to decide. Left to themselves, they will, naturally, attack the question solely from their partisan standpoints. For a settlement to be legitimate, fair and stable, it must be demonstrably based on a more impartial process, and one that actually involves the people who will be living with the new system of rule.
Labour has responded this afternoon with its own proposal for a constitutional convention.
But what is a people’s constitutional convention? What makes such a thing a people’s convention?
Here is my attempt to clarify the idea. One might use the discussion below as a framework for assessing Labour’s proposal – and any others that might emerge in the time ahead.
A constitutional convention has at its heart an assembly of citizens charged with making proposals for the basic rules of the political system, e.g., the voting system or the creation of new national or regional law-making bodies. Some of the calls for a people’s convention above, such as the Times letter, mention the recent convention in Ireland. I will use this as a reference point here. The case of Iceland is also mentioned in the Times letter, and openDemocracy provides a number of helpful articles on this case here.
Who gets to be in the assembly?
A first question concerns the size of the assembly and how its membership is selected.
In the recent Irish case there was an assembly of 100 citizens. About one third were nominated by the parties in the Irish parliament (with some seats also for nominees from parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly). Two thirds were chosen randomly so as to be ‘broadly representative of Irish society’.
What questions does the assembly consider – and who gets to decide this?
Another question is which questions about the political system the assembly discusses and who gets to decide this. How far is the agenda of the assembly given to it by parliament, and how far can it set its own agenda?
In the Irish example, the parliament (the Oireachtas) stipulated eight questions concerning the constitution that it wanted the assembly to consider and work up proposals on. However, it also allowed the assembly to develop proposals on any other issue or issues it wanted to – once it had dealt with the initial eight topics. Although this agenda-setting power was thus quite limited, the assembly did make use of it to develop proposals on reform of the parliament and strengthening social, economic and cultural rights. In winding up its business, the Irish convention also identified five new topics which it suggested might be looked at by the government, parliament – or by a fresh convention.
What happens to the assembly’s proposals?
Once the assembly has considered a question and come up with a proposal, what happens next? One possibility is that it goes straight to a referendum. In the Irish example, the proposals went to the parliament which was required to consider them in a debate within four months of the convention’s report. If the parliament votes in agreement with the proposal, then it goes to a referendum. To date, the Irish government has committed to three referendums as a result of this process.
How is the wider public involved?
Throughout this process, there need to be opportunities for the wider public to be involved. The internet of course provides considerable opportunities for exchanges of ideas and information between the assembly and citizens outside. In the recent Irish example, the convention put its proceedings online, invited submissions of views, and drew on expert witnesses whose evidence is also available on line. The convention also used regional public meetings to help set its agenda.
How long does the assembly run for?
Another important variable is how long the convention runs. In the Irish case, the convention sat for a over a year – December 2012-March 2014. It convened at weekends over this period.
So if we ask what is meant by a people’s constitutional convention, the answer depends on how we answer these questions.
How should we answer them?
My own view is that for a people’s convention in the UK to be effective in its anticipated role—indeed, to be something we can call a people’s convention—the assembly needs to have at least four qualities:
(1) it needs a decent amount of time to do its work (a year? Two years?);
(2) it needs a high level of citizen representation, independent of the political parties, where citizen representatives are chosen randomly or by election;
(3) it needs ways of connecting its deliberations to discussion and debate outside of the assembly itself – in this way it can become the focus for an engaged, public debate rather than being a substitute for such a debate; and,
(4) it needs to have clear powers to set its own agenda, rather than just responding to a fixed set of questions defined by the government or parliament.
In short, an assembly with: time; a high degree of independence from political parties; openness, to facilitate wide public engagement; and real agenda-setting power.
That is a People’s Constitutional Convention. Does Labour’s proposal meet this standard?
My thanks to Michael Otsuka and Alan Finlayson for asking the question.
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