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Fri, 27 November 2020

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Faith in our democratic processes was lost long ago – it’s time we establish a People’s Constitutional Convention

Faith in our democratic processes was lost long ago – it’s time we establish a People’s Constitutional Convention

It is more important than ever that people trust and participate in the democratic system, writes Baroness Bennett. | PA Images

5 min read

Deciding what the future of our democracy looks like should be a concern for us all, not something condemned to an inquiry carried out by a committee almost nobody has heard of.

It isn't easy to make constitutional issues sound sexy and important.

Of course people pay attention when the discussion is of hungry children or underfunding of the NHS. But they are how our elections are carried out, whether consultation is theatre or reality that determines how those practical issues are settled. 

Nothing is more important than the question of how and for whom our political system works. Our NHS and those hungry children depend on it.

That’s why the inquiry into the government’s Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission is an important opportunity to ensure it does what it says and comes up with “proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates”. 

It cannot be denied that for many, faith in our democratic processes was lost long ago. From the inevitable winner-takes-all results of first-past-the-post elections to the highly-centralised control Westminster exerts across the rest of these islands, it is no wonder people view politics with suspicion.

For many, it is something done to them, rather than by or even for. As we continue to tackle the pandemic, and with the climate crisis bearing down on us, it is more important than ever that people trust and participate in the democratic system, rather than view it as a distant and potentially malignant force.

Our constitution still carries the odour of the 17th-century smoke-filled clubs where gentlemen made agreements while their wives and servants...waited politely outside

Worryingly, it appears that the government’s inquiry is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Under the guise of seeking greater democratic engagement, its real objective is clearly to resuscitate and revitalize attacks on democracy and human rights that have become a depressing characteristic of the New Tories.

We might expect nothing less from a government that has brazenly broken domestic law with its Hostile Environment and set out clearly its intention to break international law to boot.

Our constitution still carries the odour of the 17th-century smoke-filled clubs where gentlemen made agreements while their wives and servants – not to mention the vast majority of the people who generated the nation’s wealth – waited politely outside for legislative tablets to be handed down.

It's also worrying that the remit for this inquiry has been defined by a number of quotations from the Conservative Party election manifesto, further reinforcing the sense that our democracy increasingly belongs to a smaller and smaller number of highly privileged people with the majority left out.

So why am I asking you to engage with what seems like an arcane and dubious consultation? Because refusal to engage will be taken as consent for the status quo.

Democracy belongs to everybody in this country and should not be under the influence of just one party or clique. That is why we are calling for the government to establish a People’s Constitutional Convention, in the form of a citizens’ assembly, to run alongside its own Commission. 

Only we, the people, can and should decide how power should be shared in our democracy. And the first priority for the inquiry is to commit to transparency. Deciding how our democracy should be refreshed and updated should be a concern for us all, not something condemned to an inquiry carried out by a committee almost nobody has heard of. 

I also understand the irony in calling for a stronger democracy as a member of the House of Lords, a totally undemocratic body stuffed with toffs and cronies and that, as Greens, we would replace with a fully elected chamber.

But this is precisely the point: our constitution is so outdated and our electoral system so biased that ‘taking ermine’ (artificial of course) is the only way I can currently represent the millions of people in this country who support Green Party policy. 

So I accepted the peerage offered as a favour by Theresa May and I'm proud of the work I do in the House of Lords, but it is poor compensation for the 50-plus seats the Green Party would have won in the last election under a fair voting system.

So the Green Party has put in a submission to the inquiry, I'll be keeping my eye on this inquiry into the future of our democracy and I would ask you to do the same. 

After a dangerous period, around the world there are positive signs of people power and a determination to resist Far Right populism. Not just in the election result, but with the EU setting rules about funding for members failing democratic norms, with the brave young protesters on the streets of Bangkok calling for democracy.

History isn't prewritten - it is made. And it is in all of our hands. Whatever the intentions were in setting up this inquiry, we must make sure it hears loud and clear that the UK should become a democracy, that power should rest in local areas, in nations, and only in Westminster where absolutely necessary. And that the Lords - and the Commons - should reflect the views of the voters, as neither does now. 

 

Baroness Bennett is a Green Party member of the House of Lords. 

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