Experts working to help countries “crowd source” their constitutions

Posted On: 
28th October 2016

The disconnect between voters and politicians has been cited as the cause of many current challenges in modern politics, from Brexit to the growth in support for extremist views around Europe.

Now a University of Exeter academic is working with politicians and civil society groups in Iceland trying to ensure the country’s constitution is passed into law. This could be a reality if the Pirate Party is successful in the country’s General Election this week. Along with three other parties it has made a commitment to enact a constitution that was “crowd sourced” during 2011 and 2012.            

These efforts to ensure people are consulted on the issues which affect them personally could bring benefits to society in Iceland, and in other countries, if similar efforts are repeated around the world.

Alex Prichard, along with Ruth Kinna and Thomas Swann, from Loughborough University, is collaborating with civil society activists and members of the country’s Pirate Party to see how citizens can have more say in policy and constitutional development. They are also working to see if other countries could mimic the Icelandic example and increase the say people have in decision making. Crowd sourcing policy and constitutions could take place in towns, cities, regions and even the UK.

Dr Prichard, a Senior Lecturer in International Relations, said: “In some countries there is a view that politics is something done “to” people by politicians, in the best interests of the general public. But in Iceland politicians and others think the people should have more direct influence over how their country is run.

“Iceland is a small country of 350,000 people and politicians and others are proposing that citizens have rights to suggest new laws and press for them to be enacted. This would be a far stronger system than in other countries. In the UK the public are only able to sign a petition which leads to topics being debated in parliament.

“Why shouldn’t the public be able to use social media to have their say, for example? We do have a rise in political party membership in the UK, particularly in the Labour Party, but this has not meant that the general public feels more connected to the way the country is run.”

The researchers travelled to Iceland this month to talk to members of the Pirate Party and the Constitution Society about their experiences with the limits of political activism. The Pirate Party were a civil rights campaign group that has now become an all-round political force on the left in a number of northern European countries. The Constitution Society have spent the last four years campaigning for the crowd sourced constitution, funded by the Icelandic state and accepted in a referendum in 2013, to be passed into law. Resistance by the Icelandic Parliament, prior to the exposure of the Prime Minister in the Panama Papers, has hampered progress. The work of Katrin Oddsdottir, a lawyer and Chair of The Constitution Society, means this crowd sourced constitution is now back on the political agenda. 

The experts will travel again to Iceland next year to explore how Iceland’s constitutional experience might be radicalised still further and see how far ideas like these can travel in Europe. This work is part of a larger project which examines how constitutions are used in mainstream politics, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Ruth Kinna, the lead researcher on the project and Professor of Political Theory at Loughborough University, said: “Constitutions have typically been used to establish systems of domination through hierarchy, something anarchists are opposed to. But we believe that thinking about constitutional practices in new ways can help everyone interested in anarchist organising think creatively about rule-making.”

Thomas Swann, Research Associate at Loughborough University, said: “The questions raised by this research are particularly relevant in Iceland, where innovative crowd-sourcing methods have been experimented with in trying to write a new constitution. With the potential of success for the Pirate Party in the upcoming elections, new forms of participation and democracy are becoming increasingly important, and not just for Iceland.”  

The research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of the Transformative Research scheme.

For more information on the research, see the project website: www.anarchyrules.info