A People's Assembly can heal the wounds

This article was originally published on The Guardian.

Case study

The Guardian view on Britain's broken politics: a people's assembly can heal the wounds.

The next government should act upon calls for a constitutional convention to reform our flawed democracy.

The world needs a wash and a week’s rest,” wrote WH Auden in his 1947 poem The Age of Anxiety. It has certainly felt that way in Britain at times, during three and a half years of frenzied stalemate over Brexit. But instead of a time-out, the country faces the first December general election for almost 100 years. As voters are called to the polling booths once again, a third national vote in under four years points to a democracy in crisis rather than one in rude health.

The shortcomings of our political culture and institutions have been brutally exposed since 2016. An adversarial system found itself unable, in a hung parliament, to resolve a nation-defining issue that transcended normal party politics. The flames of discord have been fanned on social media and public opinion has become dangerously polarised. The courts were obliged to intervene as a prime minister lacking a popular mandate played fast and loose with the constitution.

Brexit is not the only area of paralysis and dysfunction in the body politic. Successive parliaments have shown a shaming inability to find cross-party unity in dealing with the crisis in social care, which will deepen as the population ages. When it comes to the climate emergency, optimistic dates for achieving net-zero emissions targets have been set by all the main parties, but the roadmap to that outcome remains vague at best. Meanwhile, our first-past-the-post voting system continues to distort election outcomes, creating seats so safe that the vitality is sucked out of local democracy and parliamentary majorities are delivered by a minority share of the vote. Online, hopes that the digital age might unleash a new era of participatory democracy have given way to concern over the bullying, violent tone of much debate and the effect of unregulated political content on Facebook and other platforms.

Confronted with huge challenges, Britain needs a better, more inclusive and less polarised debate. The call from organisations across civil society to rethink and reform the way we do politics, published in the Guardian this week, is therefore welcome. The signatories, including the Equality Trust and the Electoral Reform Society, advocate the formation of a special people’s assembly – a citizens’ convention – after the election. Its members would be selected at random, as for jury service. They would convene over the course of two years, before making proposals on democratic and constitutional reform. Parliament would be mandated to act on their recommendations.

The merits of this kind of approach have already been demonstrated in Ireland, where a randomly selected assembly of 99 citizens met over an 18-month period and came to a consensus on the first reforms to abortion laws for 35 years. Their proposals were accepted by parliament and eventually endorsed by the public, in a referendum notable for the civility with which it was conducted.

Ruth Fox, the director of the Hansard Society, has warned that “the public reputation of parliament and MPs is at a nadir”. A special assembly, running in tandem with the new parliament, could help detoxify troubled times and provide a bridge between Westminster and the public. Most importantly, by creating the circumstances for informed dialogue between people from diverse backgrounds holding different views, it could showcase the political virtues of tolerance and compromise. MPs have already committed to part-funding a citizens’ assembly on the climate emergency next year. The next government should go further and take forward the proposal of a constitutional convention.