Published on October 6, 2014

We Need to Talk about Constitutional Change.

People & participation

By Sonia Bussu

Dr Sonia Bussu is a researcher at Involve. She is passionate about increasing citizen voice in public policy (so much so that she did a PhD on the topic) and over the past few years she has been involved in several research projects on citizen participation in policy-making.

We the people article 1 - blog constitution

We The People

The Scottish referendum has (re)opened a few thorny issues for Westminster: the West Lothian question has come back with vengeance, as some political quarters try to capitalise on the “English votes for English laws” sentiment for electoral returns. The question is much more complicated, as is often the case, and demands critical reflection on the localism agenda, which has been popping on and off the political radar for several years (generally more in rhetoric than in practice).

The Scottish referendum also reopened the case for renewing democracy. Voter turnout reached an outstanding 86%. Young people, and particularly 16 and 17 year olds, registered to vote in high numbers and many enthusiastically campaigned for one side or the other, making a strong case for lowering the voting age. There was genuine public enthusiasm for talking about, and getting involved in, politics to shape society. Scottish political elites and civil society were able to frame the debate on independence in such a fashion that it went far beyond nationalistic feelings. It was more about making the economy and politics responsive to societal needs, preserving fundamental social rights such as equitable access to healthcare and education. Citizens responded to this call, proving once again that the concept of political apathy is a fallacy and disengagement is more the result of distrust with party politics and unresponsive institutions than boredom with democracy.

So two main issues are at stake here: how to decentralise political power in an effective way and how to capitalise on the Scottish referendum to reinvigorate the democratic process in the whole country. While it’s clear that this process needs the support of all political parties, it must retain its independence from them. The institution of a Royal Commission with a few far-removed big wigs taking decisions on our behalf would be untenable in the post-Scottish referendum climate and would further alienate citizens from Westminster.

There have been a few interesting proposals from Labour on a constitutional convention beyond elected MPs. The Green Party and civil society  went further and called for a people’s constitutional convention. These proposals have sparked a number of insightful contributions on what we mean by a people’s constitutional convention, how to design one and who should be involved. There are already several examples of people’s constitutional conventions from all over the world that we can learn from – bearing in mind that all existing models have pros and cons and each will have to be adapted to the UK context.

There are a number of important conversations to be having: what would a people’s convention look like? Should it be a stakeholders’ assembly like the Scottish Constitutional Convention, or a directly elected one like in Iceland? It could be a randomly selected assembly like in British Columbia, where ordinary citizens deliberated over electoral reform, following a long learning phase where they grappled with the complexities of different options; their recommendations were put to the public vote in a referendum. Or instead we could consider a mixed format like the recent Constitutional Convention in Ireland, where 33 MPs from across the political spectrum and 66 randomly selected citizens got together to co-design policy recommendations over big issues such as gay marriage or lowering the voting age.

There are some important aspects to consider, for instance who should be included in a people’s convention? Those that are both citizens and residents or also resident-non-citizens, or citizen-non-residents? Should a convention be open only to people of voting age or should it also include younger people? After all, everyone will be affected by constitutional decisions.

What should the remit of the convention be? Should it just focus on the West Lothian question, or more broadly on devolution of powers to regions? Should it link the debate more clearly to the localism agenda and deliberate over double-devolution to cities and citizens? Or even go beyond that and start considering the need to write a long-due Constitution?

A growing number of voices agree that nothing should be done in haste if we want to ensure lasting democratic change. These are all important issues that deserve broad discussion. It’s a one-time opportunity to re-energise the democratic process, by involving different publics, through a deep, country-wide learning phase that draws in different expertise and different perspectives, across regions and cities, paving the way for an informed and more legitimate debate.

Involve, Demsoc and Andy Williamson are starting a conversation to connect the thinking around devolution and constitutional change “into the public – and reflect public views back into the debate.” If you want to contribute or just want to know more, get in touch!



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