Dwelling a Pause on the Detail

In Democracy

The previous post on making decisions can be accused of going into too much detail. It is certainly true that details of voting rules are the responsibility of the people setting up and overseeing constitutional processes, and I might be overstepping some line or other in making such proposals. On the other hand, I have, I hope, demonstrated that assemblies are new to us and that old practices are up for review. We do not have to build the new world in the image of received wisdom on how to handle a committee.

There are clearly a few details that need to be addressed still, questions where doubt may lurk, and it seems time to list these so that someone, somewhere, can give them some thought.

One immediate question is: where does the system get its input from? If we have an Agenda Council, where is the pile of issues that need to be sorted through? The process must be formal; we can't have just anyone rocking up with some idea they may have come up with over breakfast. The system ought, perhaps, to accept public petitions, with some level of triage (how many signatures, possibly weighted in some way to manage click fests). There might be some form of audit process that can look at implemented laws and raise issues that should be considered. We should allow that the executive are largely in the front line here, so we can accept ideas submitted by them. Perhaps lobby groups should be able to put forward proposals. All of these are possible.

The thought of lobby groups raises concerns about undue influence. In the current world a lobby group can influence MPs more or less directly. That's not really likely in the world of assemblies, so we gain a certain freedom for the assembly. On the other hand, lobby groups also promote specific ideas, making them unquestioned, turning them into ideologies: pharmaceuticals, chemical agriculture, market forces, perpetual growth, and even some interpretations of freedom of speech. These influences come from a mixture of marketing and academic influence and can be very subtle. Can we immunise ourselves from this? Probably not, at least not completely, but, fundamentally, an assemblies' strength comes from diversity, of culture, education, and experience, and this is powerful.

Petitions and lobbying are part of the inner workings. We also have to look at local government. Up, as well as down. The UK is, after all, a united kingdom, complicated by overseas territories, protectorates and dependencies, and we need to deal with the way in which the parts function individually and as a whole. England is at a disadvantage currently. The Westminster parliament deals with both English and federal laws, and the executive deals with English and federal implementation. Perhaps we need an English assembly, together with Scottish, Welsh and Irish assemblies, with a federal assembly to provide the glue? What about Gibraltar, the Isle of Man, the Turks and Caicos, and all the others?

In the other direction we have local government. We could, of course, simply replace local and district councils with assemblies. That appears to make some sort of logical sense in a hierarchical sort of way, and would probably work, as well. But, once it's seen to be working, how about looking at stakeholder assemblies; for local health provision, for example? The democratisation of just about everything is just around the corner.

Budgeting is something to think about, too. How are the limits set? How are priorities agreed? What is the scope? We already have the example of participatory budgeting in Brazil; what can we learn from that? Budgeting depends critically on the distribution of responsibilities. Local allocation of funding can be decided locally, and, in principle, could be funded by local borrowing. Taxation, though, would need to be managed to some degree from the centre of whatever currency is in operation. Taxation has two functions: redistribution and inflation control, and has to be controlled, firstly over the scope of redistribution (the whole of the UK, perhaps, or not?), and secondly over the scope of the currency (the whole of the UK, unless one of the federal partners chooses to run their own currency). Essentially, this puts a great deal of budget control in the hands of central government, with local funding being subject to central controls. It's not easy.

Of course, we have to get started first. This is, perhaps the most difficult of all the problems. We currently see one-off citizens' assemblies, including, currently, one on climate change in the UK1. From there we see suggestions replacing a second house (the House of Lords in our case) by an assembly. We even have one group sponsoring an assembly to come up with some answers to this2. My problem with any piecemeal effort is that those currently in power are unlikely to cede gracefully. The obvious alternative, revolution, would potentially have the corresponding disadvantage of failing to bring the citizens along. There has to be a ground up demand for a change.

Interestingly, one of the reasons that comes up when talking about any change of government is that it will bring about the right decisions. Where 'right' generally means the one I agree with. Promulgating a sortition based government will not answer any of my pressing questions about, say, climate change. The assembly will come to a conclusion and I have to lump it. Personally, I don't have a problem with that. The issues I think are important become potentially easier to deal with because I'm not being stonewalled by a parliamentary system that pretends a democratic base. This doesn't mean that people should not pin their particular hopes of salvation on a change to sortition. If the change is brought about from the ground up then every supporter will have a view and the aggregate will be a citizens' assembly based government, which is the 'right' thing to do.