We are trying to renew British politics and strike a blow for democracy – now we need your help

Our Citizen's Convention will gather 10 million founding mothers and fathers and give them a vested interest in the reform that will follow

Graham Allen
Tuesday 30 July 2019 12:10 BST

Our democracy is under threat and needs a shot in the arm if it is to be fit for coming generations. The Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy intends to do just that.

The Convention will run an ambitious, impartial, two-year deliberation on democratic reform in the UK. The first stage of the process begins today, with plans for how we will create a new and effective interface between the public and politicians. This project is about creating a vibrant process, and not blinkered campaigning for specific policy reforms. The policies that emerge will come from our citizen participants.

Leading MPs, including Tom Watson, Vince Cable, Caroline Lucas, David Davis and Dominic Grieve, have committed to an agenda which includes: the second chamber, devolution and the regions, paying for politics, the voting system, and what needs to be written down beyond statute law.

The MPs have signed a pledge to seek manifesto commitments from their parties that parliament will receive and then decide upon the recommendations and Bills proposed by the Citizens’ Convention.

This is an opportunity for a radical reform of UK politics. But it is also a demonstration of how citizens can use the new methods of deliberative democracy to deliver results and start the long-term change that our ailing political culture needs.

This bid to empower deliberative democracy is not a quick fix for a policy crisis and care must be taken over every aspect. That’s why the whole of 2019 will be set aside for preparation before the Convention meets. We begin with a massive public conversation about how the UK should govern itself, and then, over January 2020-December 2021, it will produce a reform package – a task not feasible for existing locked-in political institutions.

Crucially, the Convention’s extensive public engagement will give its outcomes legitimacy and help develop a culture of deliberation in our democracy. We hope this will show there is a different way to our increasingly ugly, divisive and binary discourse.

Equally importantly, politicians may begin and end this process, but they will not control it. By having an initial political trigger and a political endgame in place, the outcome will not just be a report, but a series of actions, specified in parliamentary Bills with support from the public and key parliamentarians. Everyone will be able to measure progress by reference to these key issues. The intention is to demonstrate at every stage that our project – and indeed the process of deliberation itself – is intended to complement, rather than act as an alternative to, representative democracy.

The ambition is to engage “10 million founding mothers and fathers” in this renewal of UK democracy, whose participation in the national conversation will give them a vested interest in actively supporting our elected representatives as they seek change.

Citizens of democratic states around the world are increasingly disconnected from and disillusioned with democracy. Democratic institutions are suffering a crisis of legitimacy. There is rightly a strategy for the emerging democracies. However, we swiftly need to put in place and demonstrate a strategy for the mature democracies too.

The Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy could provide just that. If we shy away from the challenge we face the prospect of an established democracy failing, and all the irreversible global repercussions that would follow.

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In the UK, the turmoil of the past few years can be traced back to decades of declining trust in our democratic system, and the failure of our political institutions to transition to a new era. Citizens’ conventions offer a profoundly different approach to democratic power: slow, deliberative, egalitarian, thoughtful, nuanced, constructive and inclusive.

Deliberation offers a way between the twin threats of elitism and populism, both of which endanger the health of our democracy. Deliberation by citizens regularly generates sound, legitimate and imaginative recommendations. And it has the happy result, in these divisive times, of vastly improving our faith in democracy, and in one another.

Graham Allen is convenor of the Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy. He was Labour MP for Nottingham North 1987-2017.

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