The Democracy Matters project, which ran two pilot citizens’ assemblies late last year, launched its report at Westminster on 13 April. The launch was celebrated with a panel discussion featuring representatives of seven political parties. John-Paul Saleh reports on the event which saw all of the politicians present voice their support for the citizens’ assembly model.
Politicians, members of the public, academics and journalists gathered in the Palace of Westminster on 13 April for the launch of the report of Democracy Matters, a project that ran two pilot citizens’ assemblies late last year. The report charts the project from its inception through to its completion and includes discussion of its findings and potential implications for constitutional reform. It is a must-read for anyone who is interested in democracy in the United Kingdom, and participatory politics in general.
The pilot citizens’ assemblies took place last autumn in two locations: Assembly North in Sheffield and Assembly South in Southampton. The project sought to encourage public participation in a time of increasing democratic inequality, using current developments in devolution as a test case for discussion. It posited that, in order to combat democratic inequality and improve the quality of decision-making, any new constitutional settlements or devolution proposals should build on deliberative discussions among citizens and between citizens and politicians based on information provided by devolution experts and advocates of different viewpoints.
In October and November 2015, Democracy Matters conducted an experiment in deliberative democracy by convening two pilot citizens’ assemblies in Sheffield and Southampton. On 10 February, Dr Alan Renwick, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, and Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, presented preliminary research findings from the project at the Constitution Unit. Adem Ruggiero-Cakir and Johnny Runge report.
The idea of holding a constitutional convention in the UK has gained prominence since the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014, and the dominant proposal for the design of such a convention has been some kind of ‘citizens’ assembly’. Citizens’ assemblies have been used in other countries, but the UK had not experienced one. That has changed with the convening of two pilot citizens’ assemblies in a project conducted by Democracy Matters and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Two models of citizens’ assemblies were tested: Assembly North, based in Sheffield, was a ‘pure’ citizen assembly (drawing on the Canadian model) comprising 32 members of the public; Assembly South, based in Southampton, was a ‘mixed’ assembly (drawing on the Irish model) comprising 23 ordinary citizens and six local councillors. Both assemblies met over two weekends to explore questions concerning devolution of powers to their local areas. The project had two main aims: 1/ to assess whether citizens’ assemblies can strengthen democracy in the UK, and build knowledge on how best to structure and organise such assemblies, and 2/ to investigate what members of the public think about devolution when given the opportunity to learn about and debate the issues in depth.
Dr Alan Renwick, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, and Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, both members of the Democracy Matters team, presented their preliminary findings on 10 February. In assessing assemblies’ impact on democracy the speakers evaluated four areas: the representativeness of assembly members, the quality of discussions among assembly members, the impact of the experience of taking part on assembly members, and the impact on the wider political process. There was then a briefer discussion about what the assemblies revealed about public opinion on devolution.
There has been growing interest in the idea of staging a ‘people’s’ constitutional convention in the UK over recent years, but little evidence for how one could work in practice. With this in mind a group of academics recently convened two pilot citizens’ assemblies in Sheffield and Southampton. The Unit’s own Alan Renwick, who was involved in running the Sheffield assembly, draws out eight lessons from two highly successful weekends.
Interest has been strong for over a year in the creation of a ‘people’s’ constitutional convention to examine some of the major questions of governance and democracy that face the UK today. I have pushed the case myself, as have many other academics, politicians, and activists.
This debate has drawn so far mainly on examples from other countries. Now, however, we have some home-grown evidence to learn from. I am part of a group – including also academics from the Universities of Sheffield, Southampton, and Westminster and a team from the Electoral Reform Society, and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council – who recently convened two pilot citizens’ assemblies to test out how the model of a citizens’ assembly works in the UK.
With the Queen’s Speech due tomorrow, we continue our series of blogs about devolution and its consequences, drawing on the Unit’s latest report Devolution and the Future of the Union. Here Robert Hazell analyses the commitment to English votes on English laws, looking first at its history, and then at its prospects.
Cynics might assume that the Conservative policy of English votes on English laws was an opportunistic slogan designed to garner votes in England, but never intended to be implemented in practice. Some attribute the commitment to David Cameron, who flourished it in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum. But the policy goes back much further than that, having appeared in the last four Conservative manifestos, from 2001 onwards. In the 2015 manifesto it was given added emphasis by being repeated four times, and spelt out in unusual detail in chapter 7.
The details were developed by the outgoing Leader of the House of Commons, William Hague, who chaired a Cabinet Committee which produced a White Paper published last December. It now falls to the new Leader of the House, Chris Grayling, to implement the policy in the new Parliament. What are his objectives; what are the main obstacles to introducing EVEL; and what would be a sensible way forward?
The logic of EVEL
The case for EVEL rests upon principles of fairness and accountability. Now that issues such as education and health are devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland assembly, it seems wrong that Scottish and Northern Irish MPs should continue to have a vote on such issues in England, or England and Wales. They have no accountability to the people of England; while the only people to whom they are accountable, their constituents in Scotland and Northern Ireland, are no longer affected by decisions made in relation to England. The conclusion is that English matters should be determined by English MPs alone.
Following the surprise election of a Conservative government with a small majority, Meg Russell and Robert Hazell offer an overview of the constitutional reforms which are likely to be prioritised and the associated difficulties that may arise.
Now that the election result is clear, it’s possible to start thinking through the likely constitutional reforms on the new Conservative government’s agenda. Some of these items are obvious, and others less so. Many of them are very challenging, as we explain below – and will expand in more detail on this blog in the coming days and weeks.
Scottish and Welsh devolution
The biggest story in this election, including as the results came in, has been Scotland. The challenge for Prime Minister Cameron is to hold the UK together, at the very moment when the SNP has almost swept the board in terms of Scottish seats. The Conservative manifesto, like those of the other UK-wide parties, committed to implementing the recommendations of the Smith Commission to devolve further fiscal and welfare powers to Scotland. The Scottish people have been led to believe that will happen easily and early in the new parliament. But this may be difficult. The Smith proposals were strongly criticised by two parliamentary committees – in both Commons and Lords. The SNP will press for more, in pursuit of full fiscal autonomy; while devo-sceptic Conservative backbenchers may argue for less. The sensible thing may be to introduce proposals via a draft bill, to see whether middle ground can be found.