Yesterday I was a witness on the Moral Maze. The topic was ‘The Morality of Politics’. It looked at the Brexit events of the last few days and whether or not they mean our democracy needs reform. Here’s what I was asked, and what I said. Questions came from host Michael Buerk, then Michael Portillo and Ann McElvoy.
You can listen to the full programme here
Michael Buerk: Our next witness is Sarah Allan who is head of Engagement at Involve, which is a charity which “aims to put people at the heart of decision-making”. In a sentence how and in another sentence why?
Sarah Allan: In different ways but in the case of Brexit by using deliberation, so deliberation is a way of bringing people together to talk about an issue with each other, to learn a bit about it and then to reach conclusions about what they think should happen. And why? Because the world has moved on people have so much control over other aspects of their lives from the media they consume to where they shop, all these different things. But in politics their control is actually very limited and it’s time we gave them a greater say over the decisions that affect their lives.
Michael Buerk: And let’s be really clear, in this particular instance over Brexit it’s a kind of Citizens’ Assembly?
Sarah Allan: Over the shape Brexit should take yes.
Michael Buerk: Which we’ll go in to in more detail I’m sure. Michael Portillo?
Michael Portillo: At election time our parties, particularly if they are successful, represent a coalition that embraces forty per cent or more of the population. Now those parties have a tremendous moral underpinning don’t they because of that?
Sarah Allan: So I think the thing with elections is that they’re incredibly blunt. So you know that x percentage of the population has voted for you but what you don’t know is why. So you don’t know if that’s because they particularly like your party leader for example or because they particularly disliked another party leader. You don’t know if it was because of your education policy or your health policy. So it tells you the number of people who have preferred you to another party but it doesn’t tell you which of your policies they support.
Michael Portillo: You appear to be looking for consensus but that’s an illusion isn’t it? I mean people simply disagree with each other that is a fact of life. And indeed, people should be allowed to disagree with each other, and encouraged to do so.
Sarah Allan: We’re not looking for consensus because I think you’re completely right actually I don’t think consensus on a lot of issues is possible. What we’re looking for is to understand what the informed view of the public is on a question like what the shape of Brexit should be. And to highlight where there is common ground, where there isn’t common ground and the reasons for that. But also very crucially, to look at what trade-offs people would make if they can’t have everything that they want. Which is information politicians often don’t get when they make their decisions but it’s actually very valuable to them.
Michael Portillo: So having gone through this process, what is the answer to what the relationship between Britain and the European Union should be.
Sarah Allan: Well I’m not quite sure because we haven’t asked people exactly. The Citizens’ Assembly we ran last year asked a representative sample of the UK population what they thought the shape of Brexit should be on trade and migration specifically so not on the rest of it.
Michael Portillo: And what did they say?
Sarah Allan: So on trade they said that their first preference if we could get it, would be for a comprehensive trade agreement covering tariff and non-tariff barriers. If we couldn’t get that they’d like a limited trade agreement covering just tariff barriers. But if they couldn’t have either of those they would like to stay in the single market rather than leave it. And similarly with the customs union they said that if we could have a deal that allowed us for example to maintain a soft border [sic- avoid a hard border] between Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland, sorry that’s an incorrect phrase.
Michael Portillo: Sorry what does any of that tell us that we didn’t know already. And isn’t that exactly the process that we’ve been going through in our democracy.
Sarah Allan: Well it tells us very clearly that people don’t like a no deal scenario. So they would rather stay in the single market and the customs union than leave with no deal at all. Also on migration I found their view quite surprising actually, it wasn’t what I was expecting. So the overwhelming majority, over half of the Assembly Members went for an option where you would keep freedom of movement but you would use the controls that we could have under European Union membership. So that you would ask people to leave after three months if they weren’t self-sufficient. Now we were surprised about that but also their opinion was quite sophisticated because as well as going for that option they talked about the fact that we need investment and better training for UK nationals, better data on migrants and so on.
Michael Portillo: Thank you, thank you so much. Aren’t you just going for middle of the road positions, and the fact is that people often portray middle of the road positions as though they were in some way morally superior to positions which are to the right or to the left. But they’re not are they. They’re just positions like other positions.
Sarah Allan: Well we don’t determine what an outcome of a Citizens’ Assembly is at all. We just facilitate and design the process to ensure that people no matter their age, their social background, their ethnicity, their level of education gets a fair say during the process. So we don’t control the outcome. We recently ran one for the Health and Social Care Select Committee and the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee looking at how social care should be funded. The results of that aren’t middle of the road at all. They think social care should be free at the point of use like the NHS.
Michael Buerk: Ok, Anne McElvoy?
Anne McElvoy: I can see that this very interesting political market research but the question in front of us was is democracy in deep trouble and do we need new answers. And I can’t quite see what this does that just getting involved in local politics, anything from your parish council, local politics, campaigning for or being elected police commissioner or the like or sitting on the board of your local hospital wouldn’t achieve. You had to design and facilitate it nobody asked for it.
Sarah Allan: So I think what’s very clear is that democracy isn’t working as it should be. And I think Brexit and the inability or the seeming inability, we’ll see, of the Government to achieve a united position on that is one example but there are lots of others to. So the political system hasn’t decided how to deal with the crisis facing the NHS, how to fund social care, how to deal with climate change …
Anne McElvoy: But it just has, the Government has just exactly come forward with a plan on health and some social care spending. Now you may not like it, or you may think it should be something else and people will have different views but where is the evidence that it isn’t working as opposed to it has outcomes that you don’t like.
Sarah Allan: I don’t have any particular view on the outcomes that should be achieve. And I think in general that you’ll see consensus among experts that these questions aren’t finalised or aren’t finished in terms of solving the problems.
Anne McElvoy: Experts, who are the experts on democracy if not the people?
Sarah Allan: There are lots of experts on democracy that aren’t the people. But what I’m getting at is there are a lot of key problems facing democracy that the current political system is failing to solve. And involving people more directly in these decisions opens up space for decision-makers to take decisions that are otherwise very politically difficult. So one of the reasons why we’ve had umpteen royal commissions on something like social care funding is that there isn’t a way of sorting out social care funding without someone paying more. And that’s a decision that politicians don’t feel able to take.
Anne McElvoy: Sorry to interrupt, our time is short. This is sort of policy and as I said, I think it’s useful research. I’m not faulting that. I think what I have not yet understood is what it replaces or enhances in the democratic process. It’s small in scale, you choose the numbers of people. Why not just you know have a few more people involved and then just call it an election. And then inform people and let them vote.
Sarah Allan: Because what it gives you is the informed view of the public on a specific issue that the Government is addressing at that time. And that is what you don’t get at the moment from any other means.
Anne McElvoy: So if I say to you, come on this is actually very interesting but it’s really about providing more information rather than an alternative way of doing democracy would I be right?
Sarah Allan: No you wouldn’t. It’s an additional way to add to the current system.
Michael Buerk: Ok Sarah Allan thank you very much indeed