Helena Kennedy: Hand over some power to the people

From climate change to crime, voters want to contribute to decisions


Despite being the world's oldest democracy, the UK has never had a revolution - no great rising of the people demanding the overthrow of the established order. Our history shows complex struggles for the rule of law and democracy rather than a great constitutional moment. We pride ourselves on our relatively peaceful transition from aristocratic oligarchy to liberal democracy starting with the Magna Carta.

I've battled with government about civil liberties and know that liberty is sustained or diminished through the way political and institutions manage power. Worryingly, 76 per cent of us believe our vote makes little or no difference to Westminster's decisions. Once people stop being engaged, there are real questions about democratic legitimacy and whether governments have a mandate to do radical things; think ID cards, which fundamentally change the relationship between citizen and state, creating new paradigms of state power.

Those with power rarely want to give it away and politicians make great arguments for minimalist change. But why should they decide the rules?

Polling conducted for the Power Inquiry into Britain's democracy which I chaired, shows 70 per cent of voters want more power in setting democratic rules. There is a deeply-rooted crisis of trust and disengagement from parliamentary democracy as we come to the end of Blair's era. To win the next election, politicians of all hues are talking about restoring trust and hinting at reforms of parliament, bills of rights and a radical decentralisation of power - double devolution. We could be facing a new constitutional moment in our history - when the way power is managed is opened up for contest. The question is, in whose interests and by what principles will it be shaped?

We have been here before. Before the 1997 election, New Labour promised a different political settlement. There have been achievements: devolution, a partly-reformed House of Lords, a Judicial Appointments Commission, Human Rights Act, and Freedom of Information but without a written constitution even Parliament's contribution was held in the Prime Minister's tight grasp. There has been plenty of modernisation but little democratisation. The UK is unique in western nations in giving one party control of government and the popular assembly based on a minority of the vote at elections. So how do we hold government to account?

Our Make It An Issue campaign calls for a rebalancing and redistribution of power, codifying of our unwritten constitution, stronger representative democracy and parliamentary reform. We need a voting system that forces parties to compete beyond the swing constituencies and offering voters a greater diversity of choices and candidates. In the Power Report we list many changes to make democracy work better . We suggest a cap on donations to parties and the opportunity for each voter to choose which local party would receive £5 of taxpayers' money. This gives people direct influence: you might vote Labour but want to see the Greens get some money. Instead of the money going into expensive billboards or hairdressers' bills, it would be spent on local activity.

But this isn't enough. The public is tired of playing a role where the only meaningful right is to reject the government every five years. So how do we shift power to the people? 1.5 million people demonstrated against war with no impact whatsoever. Huge numbers of people demonstrated for the Countryside Alliance and it didn't matter a jot. People are no longer satisfied with electing "change makers", they want to be agents of change. And we are not talking about focus groups. From climate change to crime, people want a proper debate and want to contribute to decisions.

In British Columbia, a citizens' assembly decided whether the electoral system should be changed. In Greece, George Papandreou used a randomly selected assembly to choose his party's mayoral candidates.

We should create a culture where it is normal for policy and decision-making to have direct input from citizens. How? By providing "a citizen's right to initiate" including legislative processes, public inquiries and hearings into public bodies.

The public wants a voice. They are tired of spin and sleaze. They want honesty in politics and politicians prepared to say they got it wrong. They are sickened by the short-term policy, meaningless targets and blue-sky thinkers who never see beyond the end of their noses. We need politicians with substance, who believe in something and who are prepared to listen. We want a new way of doing politics. This may be our constitutional moment. We must not let it pass.

Helena Kennedy QC is chair of the Power Inquiry


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