ONLY one issue matters right now in British politics: Brexit. That’s what political insiders tell us – and when have they ever been wrong?
Yet there is an alternative view. The question that really matters is what we’re going to do, after 12 December, to fix our broken system of parliamentary democracy.
The warning signs are obvious. Our voting system guarantees that, whoever ends up in Downing Street, most voters will consider the election result a travesty. The ill-considered framing of the 2016 referendum ensures that, whatever long-term outcome we ultimately achieve with Brexit, most people will feel cheated by it.
These are not temporary dissatisfactions. Over the past decade, confidence in the UK’s political institutions has evaporated. Half the electorate feel that none of the main parties cares about people like them; 47 per cent feel that they have no voice at all in national decision-making; 63 per cent feel that the system is “rigged” to the advantage of the rich and powerful. A £2bn-a-year lobbying industry makes it hard to argue that they’re wrong; as does the obvious social and economic gulf between our legislators in Westminster and most of those they are supposed to represent. (The House of Lords, in particular, is no more representative than the Garrick Club.)
Even within the political class, there’s a growing recognition that the system is breaking down. Populists lie with shameless abandon, and thrive; old taboos against political violence and intimidation have shattered. Politicians are despised even more than journalists. In Ipsos-MORI’s authoritative Veracity Index, the political profession scored a trust rating of just 17 per cent – that’s less than half the score for bankers.
It’s not just that people are tired of politicians – although they are. The system itself is losing their consent. Roughly half of the electorate think we need a strong leader who is prepared to break rules, and that we would be better governed if parliament’s powers were reduced. A few fogeys still venerate our constitution, yet the events of the past few months have made it alarmingly clear that it isn’t worth the paper it isn’t written on. We can’t even agree if we’re a direct democracy or a representative democracy.
There’s an obvious solution: reform. And there’s an obvious time to do it: now.
In normal times, significant political reform is impossible. That’s the first rule of politics: those with the power to make reform happen are those for whom the unreformed system works. So nothing much changes, and the electorate becomes apathetically resigned to the status quo.
But these are nasty, abnormal times, which offer opportunity as well as danger. It is hard (although sadly not impossible) to imagine an incoming government so irresponsible as to leave the UK’s democratic crisis unaddressed. Urgent repairs, commanding genuine popular support, are a matter of simple self-interest for anyone involved in parliamentary politics.
In normal times, of course, there is also a second rule of politics: significant reform is impossible. We can agree easily enough that the old needs to be replaced. But as soon as we start trying to define a bold new alternative, we bicker ourselves to a stalemate. Just look at the turgid history of attempts to reform the electoral system or the Lords. Hence our default position of muddling on as we are.
Today, however, those first two rules of politics are arguably being superseded by a third and more fundamental rule: no democratic system of government can survive without the relatively wholehearted consent of the governed.
This principle was at the heart of my book, People Power, which Biteback published nearly two years ago as part of its “Provocations” series. People Power predicted and dissected today’s disastrous “People vs. Parliament” conflict and argued that the simplest way to resolve it was to introduce an element of direct democracy into parliament itself. Specifically, I suggested that our current House of Lords – a democratic laughing-stock steeped in privilege and patronage – should be replaced, or at least supplemented, by an upper chamber chosen by sortition. In other words, the legislators in our upper chamber should be “people’s peers”: a small, representative sample of the general population, selected by lot from the electoral roll. It sounds far-fetched (although Alex Burghardt MP, having read it for the BBC’s Daily Politics, admitted that “It’s not as crazy as it sounds”). My counter-argument, which sounds glib but is actually deadly serious, is that it is a lot less far-fetched than imagining that parliament can continue without such radical reform.
Two years on, the crisis in politics has deepened – and Lords reform is at the top of no one’s agenda. Yet reform of some kind is increasingly recognised as an urgent necessity; and the idea of giving randomly chosen citizens a central role in the process has become almost mainstream.
When Lisa Nandy and Stella Creasy – Labour MPs supporting Leave and Remain respectively – proposed a randomly-chosen citizens’ assembly to detoxify the Brexit debate and build a consensus on what to do next, their proposal drew support from right across the political spectrum, from Gordon Brown to Rory Stewart, the Financial Times to the Guardian, the Electoral Reform Society to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
More recently, a cross-party grouping including Vince Cable, Caroline Lucas, Dominic Grieve, Tom Watson and David Davis has backed plans for a randomly-selected Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy, to deliberate on behalf of the entire electorate over a two-year period and agree the basis of a new UK constitution.
The design and processes of this assembly have been exhaustively planned by an expert team led from the Centre for British Politics and Government at King’s College London (with support from the Policy Institute at King’s). The big outstanding question is how much backing – if any – a future Government will give it and, crucially, what weight will be attached to its findings. This month, around 80 civil society groups came together to launch a campaign called Up To Us, calling for “a new pact between the citizen and the state”. The aim is to build mass support for the idea of the Convention, so that parties begin to feel that backing it will be a vote-winner.
I struggle to see how anyone could object to this plan, which transcends party politics. If parliamentary democracy is to have a future in the UK, the ground rules need to be agreed and written down; and they cannot be meaningfully agreed unless the entire electorate feels that its views and interests have been consulted. That’s why the principle of a deliberative assembly that’s a representative sample of the electorate is so powerful: it is visibly fair.
If the proposed Citizens’ Convention does take off, it may or may not give serious thought to the idea of incorporating sortition as a permanent feature of parliament, as proposed in People Power. I like to think that it might, but perhaps that’s wishful thinking.
On the other hand, the case for the Convention itself – a randomly-chosen one-off assembly about the ground rules of democracy – seems irresistible. If you haven’t yet got your head round the idea, I urge you to follow some of the links in this post; and to consider supporting the Up To Us campaign.
The high-risk alternative is to carry on as we are.
“People Power: remaking Parliament for the populist age”, by Richard Askwith, is published in Biteback’s Provocations series (£10)