The bright side of politics

We ought to be more active and inventive in our search for new ways of engaging people in how their country is run

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The Independent Online

The Independent on Sunday refuses to share the fashionable gloom about the state of democracy today. Not because there is nothing wrong with our politics, but because we are irritatingly optimistic. As the youngest Sunday newspaper, we see every problem as an opportunity. It cannot be doubted that many, many people feel shut out from politics, excluded by big money, big business and a professional political class. But that ought to inspire us to be more active, more inventive and more assertive in our search for new ways of engaging people in how their country is run.

That is why we welcome the report on citizens’ assemblies from the Policy Network, on which we report today. This is the sort of innovation that ought to be tried out with indiscriminate enthusiasm. The idea is that people are chosen by lot, on the same principle as a jury except that it is voluntary, to take part in a debate about a problem.

It is not a new idea. Indeed, our sister newspaper, The Independent, co-sponsored an experiment in “deliberative polling” with Channel 4 in 1994, and the results were interesting. In the discussion on crime, support for more use of prison and longer sentences decreased. The last Labour government experimented with something called citizens’ juries, but they petered out.

As with so many ideas that seem attractive, they hit the problems of time and money. About half of people may tell Policy Network that they would take part in a citizens’ assembly – 54 per cent if it is to discuss local issues, 50 per cent on national questions – but in practice it is hard to maintain commitment or to take time off work. One of the problems with politics is that it takes so many meetings. Many people would rather sign a petition or go on a demo.

But that – because we are irritatingly optimistic – only encourages us to redouble our search for new ways to involve people in democracy. Citizens’ assemblies have their place, but they have to be on subjects, perhaps especially local problems, about which people care enough to give up some time.

There must be many other ways, especially with new technology, to give people the chance to debate and decide things that are more satisfying than putting a single cross on a piece of paper every five years.

Let us, however, start with elections, the foundation of democracy, and suggest that there ought to be more of them. There is something exciting about the clear-out of the House of Commons that happened last month. The large contingent of Scottish Nationalists has shaken things up a bit. And, as John Rentoul notes opposite, there are many new MPs from non-traditional backgrounds: the first care worker to become an MP, and several second-generation immigrants, many of them Conservatives. Let us hope they resist too rapid assimilation into the Out-of-Touch Club.

One way to do that would be to have elections more often. The Fixed-Term Parliament Act should be amended to require elections every four years, as used to be the norm, or even every three years, as the Australians do and the Chartists demanded.

We should praise the efforts of both main parties to organise primary elections. A few Conservative MPs have been chosen by primaries, and Labour is opening the selection of its candidate for London mayor to anyone signing up and paying £3. The problem there is that democracy can be expensive.

That is why we need more experiments with citizen involvement. The public-spiritedness of the people who featured on our Happy List is a form of politics: we need to find ways to harness it. Let us try citizens’ assemblies, primaries and new ways of using the internet to engage with each other and our representatives. Our politics is not exactly broken, but let us be optimistic about making democracy better.

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