Few political observers will have missed Boris Johnson’s speech after the Conservative Party’s general election victory. All around him were images of a slogan shouting “The People’s Government”. Cynics have of course leapt on this as trademark populism, but should the new government want to sustain its support and deliver its manifesto commitments then there will need to be more in this new mantle than a soundbite.
Making a difference to many people’s lives – and one that they notice and credit to the Government - is challenging. To get it right, the Government needs to work with people, not just to understand their concerns but to build the solutions. People are experts in their own experience, and have irreplaceable insights, ideas, skills and resources. By working with them, the Government will be better able to create the stability, uphold the traditions and deliver on the aspirations that people value.
There is a wealth of expertise out there for the Government to draw on, a small part of which is collated here. Below I outline five areas where the ‘People’s Government’ can put its ambition into practice early in its life.
1. Responding to Climate Assembly UK
Commissioned by six cross-party House of Commons Select Committees, Climate Assembly UK will bring together people from all walks of life to discuss how the UK should tackle climate change. Specifically, it will consider how the UK should meet its target of net zero emissions by 2050. In November, 30,000 invitations were sent out to randomly selected addresses. In January the 110 assembly members – representative of the wider UK population - will meet for the first of four weekends. The new Prime Minister has consistently reiterated the government’s 2050 target; Climate Assembly UK will give him the public’s preferences for how to keep this promise, and the rationale behind them. It will be an invaluable resource for his Government, and it is vital that it listens to and acts on its work.
2. Building on support for social care funding reform
The Conservative manifesto pledges to build cross-party consensus on finding a solution to social care funding – where it should come from and how it should be spent. The need for consensus betrays the difficulty in finding a politically acceptable way forward. In 2018, two respected committees of the House of Commons commissioned the Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care as part of their inquiry into adult social care funding. After 1,316 hours of deliberation, its members – a representative sample of the English population - delivered their very plausible proposals. These were widely picked up in the unanimous report from the two cross-party committees’, providing a way forward which also has public legitimacy and backing. With the prospects for new cross-party collaboration looking weak, these ideas provide a way ahead for the Government. They also come with a clear explanation, in the public’s own words, about why this is their preferred path.
3. Rebuilding trust in devolution in Northern Ireland
As talks to restore Stormont get underway, the discussion will inevitably focus on how to avoid further deadlocks in the future. It will also centre on how to build consensus and move ahead on crucial policies that have been in a holding pattern since the Assembly’s collapse almost three years ago. Greater involvement in decision making from people living in Northern Ireland will be key to both these areas. As Involve’s Citizens’ Assembly for Northern Ireland demonstrated, deliberative mini publics such as citizens’ assemblies are a reliable means to build trust and mutual understanding across social divisions. Any reconfiguring of power-sharing institutions should be done to facilitate deliberation, trust, and collaboration as Northern Ireland faces the challenges of the coming decade.
4. Giving people a voice on the constitution, democracy and rights
In their manifesto, the Conservatives promised a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission. A ‘People’s Government’ needs to ensure that the Commission is not an elite discussion behind closed doors in Westminster. People from all walks of life should be given the chance to come together, learn about the issues and provide their input on how the UK works. There should be space for citizens both to consider the areas put forward by government, and to have a more fundamental discussion about our democratic values and any additional constitutional, democratic and rights issues of public concern. The Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy has put together thinking that may be useful in this space.
5. Overcoming divisions in Scotland
Another story on election night were the results from Scotland. The Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland will report in the spring on “the kind of country that we should be seeking to build”. It has brought together a group of over 100 Scottish residents, selected to be a broadly representative cross-section of the population. Despite their widely differing political allegiances this group has been working together to identify the points of common ground in their vision for Scotland, and how the challenges that face Scotland can best be overcome by focusing on the values and services that are important to the country. It is vital that governments at all levels - north and south of the border - take this opportunity to listen to the informed and considered views of the people of Scotland to help build consensus on the way forward.
Image credit: George Hodan (publicdomainpictures.net)