There are at least two deep-rooted issues evident in UK life which this suggestion could significantly help to alleviate. Those issues being:
(1) Increasing polarisation of the electorate and parliament on many issues due to the lack of proportional representation, vested interests of mainstream media barons, social media, capture of government by industrial lobby groups and funders, and decades of ‘neoliberal’ societal fragmentation. People need to start talking and listening across bubbles much more, and engaging in considered debate to counteract this.
(2) Secondly, a disconnect on many issues between what the population thinks is important and what their representatives actually pass laws on, resulting in a sense of disenfranchisement and powerlessness in the population. Five-yearly elections are not sufficient to fully align desires with outcomes and does not give a deep enough sense of involvement in shaping our lives. Take the abortion situation in Ireland, for many years a majority of the population had wanted to allow abortions but it took a well-run citizen’s assembly to finally deliver the change the population had wanted, not an election. A mechanism for more frequent alignment of the populations desires and their representatives actions is required, and a deepening of participation in democratic practices (more than just voting) is required.
The suggestion: Citizen’s Assemblies to become the formal fourth pillar of the UK political structure, alongside the executive, judiciary and legislature.
Please note, this assumes that all assemblies would be run according to best practice principles, i.e. where the demographics of the assembly match, in microcosm, the demographics of the larger population; where the participants receive balanced expert information from all reasonable viewpoints; where discussions between participants are expertly moderated to prevent domination and encourage speaking up; and where frequent sampling is done of participants viewpoints throughout the process, to measure the impact of the assembly process as it progresses.
Citizen’s Assemblies (“CA”) would become a formal part of British public life as follows:
– As a minimum a CA would be a legal requirement at borough, region and national levels for any ‘contentious’ issue affecting those areas, say those issues identified by initial polling to have at least 34% (say) opposition. Assemblies could be optionally be held on any issue however, or to serve as a source of ideas or to filter ideas for future action.
– The running of the assemblies would be done by certified professional organisations.
– Participants would be randomly-selected according to in such a way as to create a CA having the same demographic proportions as the geographic entity holding the CA, across sex, race, political outlook etc. i.e. the CA would as accurately as possible represent the population, in microcosm.
– Participants would be reimbursed for their participation at (say) a minimum of the universal credit level, since a well-run assembly can be time-consuming, intense, and important to our society.
– The CA’s recommendations and all transcripts would be published publicly, freely at their conclusion.
– Crucially, the governing representatives in the geographic entity holding the CA would be required by law to formally and publicly RESPOND to the CA’s recommendations within a short fixed timeframe (say 3 months). If the governing representatives don’t agree that those recommendations should be implemented, fully or in part, they must state in that response why, and that is the end of the matter. However it provides a clear ‘audit’ point for the population to become aware of any gaps between their desires and their “representatives” desires. Alternately, if the governing representatives do agree with it then they would have a further N months to show that implementation has started or that further discussion has started on refining the recommendations.
The benefits of this policy suggestion would be, at minimum:
– Education of the participants with balanced viewpoints from all (reasonable) directions around the topic in question.
– Participants would see and learn how reasoned and considered discussion can happen, even between people who strongly disagree.
– It provides an opportunity for participants to break out of their social bubbles, encouraging social mixing that might not happen for them elsewhere. Participants would mix and talk within a proportionally representative microcosm of the population.
– Discussion of the both the topic in question, and the process being used to discuss it would be spread by participants to their friends and family, widening the impact, insights and education.
– Free, timely, transparent and public publishing of the CA’s transcripts and results would encourage trust in the process and spread the impact, insights and education on the topic nationally (even globally).
– It would encourage the spread of considered, rational discussion of any divisive topic, outside CA’s and crucially, encourage listening across divides.
– It would give people a deeper and more frequent involvement in shaping our society. This and the increased accountability of the governing representatives would help alleviate the sense of powerlessness in a lot of the population.
– It would provide more frequent and formal points, between elections, where the gap between what the electorate desires (after being educated on and fully considering the topic) and what their representatives are prepared to deliver to them, helping the wider population better consider their actions in the next elections, say.
As the use of assemblies spreads to a wider range of issues than just the most contentious ones, and as a larger and larger proportion of the population, over time, get the opportunity to experience the benefits of considered discussion in the assemblies, it would act to counter the problems stated at the start of this proposal.
Our leaders do keep insisting that ‘we live in a democracy’ and say that they are proud of that, so what possible objection could there be to deepening and maturing our democracy, providing more opportunities to participate in it, in an ever more reasoned and considered way?
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