Towards a citizens' constitutional convention

What will it take to create a genuinely citizen-led constitutional convention for the UK? A meeting in Parliament on May 10, convened by Assemblies for Democracy, will aim to find out. 

Paul Feldman
3 May 2016

Calls for a convention on the constitution, which emerged strongly in 2014 around the time of Scotland’s independence referendum, have taken on a new lease of life since last year’s general election.

They are driven by a growing recognition that system-level change is needed if we are to tackle the pile-up of policies that are attacking the citizenry from every conceivable angle. And there is a clear recognition that the process should be citizen-led if the outcomes of a convention are to have real significance. Jon Trickett, Labour’s shadow communities minister, whose brief includes the constitutional convention, put forward a bold proposal for an independent process at a Democracy Day event organised by Compass earlier this year.

Trickett’s approach goes beyond the limits of the cross-party consensus struck before the 2015 election that there should be a constitutional convention with a narrow remit that focused on the House of Lords, devolution and other “internal” matters. It also takes us further than the March 2015 Commons political and constitutional reform committee’s report on the UK constitution which listed “options for reform”.

Among the general population, there is a real sense that the political process is broken, exposing the limitations of an unreconstructed system of representative democracy in a globalised, decentred world. That the present government has an overall majority although it received the support of fewer than 25% of registered voters is just one aspect of the problem.

Support for the existing political process is woeful. Just 21% of Britons trust politicians to tell the truth compared with 25% trusting journalists and estate agents and 42% who trust builders, according to Ipsos-MORI. This may look bad for politicians, but it is an improvement on last year when just 16% of the public trusted them to tell the truth.

Yet the drive for change is irresistible. A popular social movement resulted in the humiliating defeat of senior Labour figures by Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign which verified the maxim that one should expect the unexpected at a time of political uncertainty. This followed in the footsteps of the tremendous mobilisation of the electorate in Scotland the year before as people sensed they could shape their own destiny and even end austerity.

Despite the narrow defeat of the independence campaign, Scotland’s ties to Westminster have continued to loosen. Increased tax and spend powers granted to Holyrood as part of the pre-referendum “bribe” have weakened the Union and thus the UK constitution itself. There is more than a sleight of hand about how these changes were ushered through by political elites in both countries.

As we approach the UK-wide referendum on European Union membership, the notion that Parliamentary sovereignty is the cornerstone of our constitution is clearly problematic and contested. The constitutional settlement made at the end of the 17th century no longer works in practice.

Much of the debate is focused on existing institutions of the state, how they relate to each other and how our rulers should rule the rest of us. We should take a more profound approach and examine where power – economic as well as political – actually lies at present and how that might be altered in favour of the people through a process of constitutional change.

Iceland’s citizen-led process of writing a new constitution in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and “pots and pans revolution” resulted in an embrace of human rights, rights of nature, separation of powers, transparency and direct democracy, for example. We should also reference the ways by which corporate and financial power has contributed to the loss of legitimacy of the UK political-state system. The overweening influence of corporate lobbyists on policy making, the lack of independent party funding, over-reliance on corporations and rich individuals to fund political parties and the concentration of media ownership should not be sidestepped. 

Assemblies for Democracy welcomes Jon Trickett’s vision of a hands-off process, independent of Parliament and mainstream political parties, to be started as soon as possible. Yet the fact that there has been no opportunity for citizens and pro-democracy campaigners to input into the design of this process should raise flags for anyone passionate about a convention process designed to serve the public interest rather than the status quo.

As a response to this, Assemblies for Democracy has organised a public meeting at the House of Commons on the evening of 10 May to open up the discussion on what kind of process is most likely to have the best outcome for the general population.

We have been studying surveys of recent convention processes suggested, for example, by the Electoral Reform Society and Alan Renwick in his groundbreaking report for the Constitution Society and Unlock Democracy and asking our supporters what they think. This is an ongoing process, but some points of agreement have emerged.

If there is a secretariat overseeing a convention process then that group should be drawn from a broader group of experts than just academics and university staff. Suggestions have included facilitators, democracy activists, successful participatory initiatives from other countries and participants from the many organisations concerned with defining new forms of democracy.

If there is to be a central drafting group, then there should be strong mechanisms for ensuring input from wider society is incorporated into the work of the central drafting group.

As Parliament is unlikely to support proposals for significant change, the final proposals should be put to a national referendum in order to test and hopefully secure popular support. This might need to be organised independently or be promised to the people by a "democratic coalition" of political parties ahead of the next general election.

On May 10, we will be inviting you to share your views on as many as possible of key issues:

What is the purpose of this process?

Who is represented in this process?   

  • What is the basic structure of the body/bodies that debates the options and makes recommendations?

  • Who can influence the constitution-making body’s deliberations?  

  • What are the body’s operational procedures?   

  • What happens once the constitution-making body has made its  recommendations?  

The event is part of a process of developing a collective view with other democracy campaigns and activists. There will be plenty of time for discussion and attendees can also submit written views via an online survey after the event.

“Designing Democracy for the 21st Century” takes place on Tuesday May 10, from 6-9pm in Committee Room 5 at the House of Commons. The room is booked in the name of John McDonnell MP. Register through Eventbrite - where you can find details of the speakers - and allow yourselves enough time to pass through the security process at Westminster.

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