The Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK is sending a powerful message: people in the UK want their elected representatives to do better. The Assembly met over six weekends in the final months of 2021 to examine how the UK’s democratic system should work. Its full recommendations will be published in March. This post previews some of the key findings.
The Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK comprises 67 members of the UK public who were carefully selected to be representative of the wider population in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, educational background, location in the UK, and political attitudes. The members met over six weekends between September and December, hearing from experts, discussing among themselves, and drawing conclusions. They reached over 50 recommendations, covering many aspects of democracy in the UK, which will be published in full in March. They also crafted statements summing up their feelings about how democracy is working in the UK today. These statements – the focus of this post – send a powerful message that people in the UK want their representatives to do a better job.
The Assembly members began their final weekend of deliberations, on 11–12 December, by choosing words that summed up their feelings about current UK democracy. They could choose from a list of words provided, or add their own. The word cloud below shows how they responded. The most frequently chosen options were ‘dissatisfied’ and ‘frustrated’, followed by ‘concerned’, then ‘hopeful’ and ‘disappointed’.
In the weekend’s closing session, the Assembly members worked in small groups to develop statements around the most frequently chosen words. Each group was assigned one word and asked to craft a statement saying why they felt that way and what a ‘good’ democracy in the UK would look like. Groups could also, if they wished, choose an extra word and develop a statement around that.
The members developed 20 statements in all. Here they all are, starting with the most popular words and working down. We offer no commentary on them – their overwhelming message is clear.
We feel dissatisfied with how democracy is working in the UK today because there is a lack of honesty and integrity in politics, combined with a lack of clear and unbiased information from both the government and the media.
In a ‘good’ UK democracy, we would want evidence of honesty and integrity in politics, backed up by investigative journalism and a balanced media that is able to challenge and scrutinise government and ensure the public are well informed.
We feel dissatisfied with how democracy is working in the UK today because the current system does not incentivise politicians to govern for all.
In a ‘good’ UK democracy those we elect to represent us would prioritise representing the people that voted for them and the issues that are important to their constituency.
We feel frustrated about how democracy is working in the UK today because there is a disconnect between people and the system. We do not feel listened to and there is no clear way to have influence. We need to feel that change can happen and that different voices are taken into account.
In a ‘good’ UK democracy citizens and politicians would be open minded, and minority opinions listened to and acknowledged. There would be a stronger relationship between elected representatives and their constituents – with both being responsible for this!
We feel frustrated by a sense of British complacency that just accepts the idea that our system of democracy is the best and does not need to evolve.
In a ‘good’ UK democracy we would learn from best practice in democracies around the world and ensure we have better educated voters. This will help us to better safeguard basic rights, protect the weakest in society, limit the power of the elites, distribute work more fairly and reduce homelessness and poverty.
We feel concerned about how democracy is working in the UK today because, while most MPs are honest and trying their best, they are overshadowed by the sleaze, scandal and incompetence of a few politicians which give government and parliament a bad name. This breeds unfairness and allows systems of regulation to be overridden.
But in a ‘good’ UK democracy there would be more inclusivity, honesty, and integrity. There would be a parliament that truly represents the people of the country, and did not simply act as a cheerleader for the government.
We feel concerned about how democracy is working in the UK today because of disappointing behaviour from politicians (especially those holding positions of power), an embarrassing political culture of dishonesty and lack of serious consequences for bad behaviours.
In a ‘good’ UK democracy politicians, and politics overall, would be interested in the greater good and be public service minded.
We feel concerned about how democracy is working in the UK today because we feel it is spiralling downwards and getting worse. It doesn’t feel like there is much hope in sight, as there is no real accountability or redress.
But in a ‘good’ UK democracy the people in power would be held accountable for their actions and there would be clear sanctions in place if they breach, or break, their responsibilities to the electorate.
We feel concerned about how democracy is working in the UK because there is not enough diversity in the elected representatives in our current government.
In a ‘good’ UK democracy there would be fair, equal and proportionate representation in government, so that it represents the public as a whole. We should all experience the same version of democracy and be able to see ourselves within it.
We feel hopeful about how democracy is working in the UK because there are laws that protect our rights to vote and be represented.
But in a ‘good’ UK democracy there would be better connection and engagement between people and their elected representatives, and governments would be brave enough to listen to the recommendations of a Citizens’ Assembly.
We feel hopeful about how democracy is working in the UK because there’ll be another General Election soon.
In a ‘good’ UK democracy the people in power would have integrity.
We feel hopeful about how democracy is working in the UK today because it is a democracy and we do have a vote. Because of this governments do change and come to an end.
In a ‘good’ UK democracy however it is important that everyone should educate themselves about their vote and our democratic system, appreciate having a vote and a voice, and value that everyone is able to participate and has an equal right to be heard.
We feel disappointed with how democracy is working in the UK today because there are not enough ‘ordinary people’ in parliament and government.
In a ‘good’ UK democracy people wouldn’t feel inhibited to stand for election to represent their communities and the barriers that stop ordinary people being elected would be removed.
We feel disappointed about how democracy is working in the UK today because the agenda is too often party political, rather than being about working for us.
In a ‘good’ UK democracy the people, and their welfare, would be at the forefront of all policy, laws and decision making.
We feel disappointed in how democracy is working in the UK right now because, no matter which party is in power, a big part of the population is likely to be dissatisfied due to the nature of the current voting system.
In a ‘good’ UK democracy there would be new political parties which are changing with the times, a spending cap on campaign funding, and an opportunity to explore proportional representation to enable the better inclusion of everyone’s views in parliament.
We feel let down by how democracy is working in the UK today because our politicians often show a lack of honesty, openness and integrity. We expect more from them because of their position of power and authority, but currently it feels like ‘do as I say, rather than do as I do’.
In a ‘good’ UK democracy the system would be open, honest and transparent and there would be a culture of respect. Politicians would lead by example and be accountable for their actions.
We feel let down about how democracy is working in the UK today because we feel disconnected, not listened to and not represented.
In a ‘good’ UK democracy politics, parties and the government would be about public service, not self-service.
We feel angry about how democracy is working in the UK today because the electoral system is not representative. Within government there is a culture of nepotism and cronyism and an overall lack of respect for the public’s right to challenge policy decisions.
But in a ‘good’ UK democracy, where the system is working as it should, we the public would have better mechanisms to allow our voices to count. We would also be well informed and better able to identify what issues to push forward and confident in the belief that, by acting, we could get change to happen.
We feel optimistic about how democracy is working in the UK today because our democratic system is better than in many other countries. Here we can all participate in, and talk freely about, our democracy without fear of facing consequences. Also, everyone can influence change via voting, standing for parliament, joining a political party of their choice, initiating petitions etc.
But in a ‘good’ UK democracy these mechanisms would work better. We still need to ‘iron out the creases’ and we hope some of the issues that have come to light during the Citizens’ Assembly will help make a difference. We can’t keep everybody happy, but we can maintain fairness through applying processes well.
We feel distrustful of how democracy is working in the UK today because of the blatant hypocrisy of the ‘one rule for them and one rule for us’ situation that appears to be the norm in current UK politics.
In a ‘good’ UK democracy we would see integrity and accountability demonstrated at all levels of political office, with clear and trusted procedures and sanctions that require politicians to uphold the highest levels of conduct and don’t just rely on people in power choosing to ‘do the right thing’.
We feel insecure about the way democracy the UK is working at the moment and question the strength of our democratic system to withstand attempts to rewrite fundamental principles of the British constitution without consultation with the people.
In a ‘good’ UK democracy we would have a representative system where elected members display respect for the core elements of our democracy and the people’s right to choose.
The Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK is part of the Constitution Unit’s Democracy in the UK after Brexit project, which is exploring attitudes to democracy in the UK today. The project is led by Professor Alan Renwick, with Professors Meg Russell and Ben Lauderdale. Its Advisory Board includes politicians from across the political spectrum, as well as experts, academics, and campaigners. The Citizens’ Assembly was run in conjunction with Involve, the public participation charity.
The full report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Democracy in the UK will be published in March. In addition to the statements in this blogpost, we have also released a small number of Assembly recommendations that are especially pertinent to matters under current consideration in parliament.
The wider project’s first report, setting out the results of a survey of the UK population, will be published in late January.
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