Starting the constitution conversation

Suddenly the constitution is in fashion. David Cameron has asked William Hague and Lord King to get their thinking caps on. Ed Miliband has called for a constitutional convention. The Electoral Reform Society have called for something similar, citizen-led (and we signed that letter).

Talking to Andy and Simon on the back of their blogs on the topic, we think it’s time to launch a public conversation. Not something to replace the other thinking going on, but to connect that thinking into the public – and reflect public views back into the debate.

If we don’t start now, we risk losing momentum – or worse, getting sucked into the vortex of the election campaign. If we build the network and get talking, the politicians and process can always catch up later.

We want to start by making the conversation as broad as possible.  If we get stuck on Westminster issues like Lords Reform or English Votes for English Laws, we’ll be missing a far bigger opportunity – the chance to make all of politics and government more open, more transparent and more participative. The Scottish referendum was as much about a new model of politics (or revulsion with the old) as it was about the technicalities of embassies, currencies and borders. Any constitutional discussion should be the same.

We want it to be a conversation that happens outside the M25 more than inside it, and gives everyone a chance to involve themselves in they way they want, as much as they want. We want it to involve everyone with an interest – the ERS, academics, think tanks – but most of all the public.

How are we going to make it happen? Here’s our early thinking, inspired by other constitutional discussions in Estonia, Ireland and Iceland:

1. It’s an experiment in itself. We are trying to follow the sort of approach we want to see in government: open, participative and representative. We’ll be discovering as we go along, and not clamming up when things go wrong.

2. We create a map of the different issues that need to be taken into account (English Parliament, participation rules, what powers are devolved, etc) so we can see what the scope of the discussions could be and we have a plan for putting evidence together.

3. We try to create a deme (a group of interested people who want to talk) around each of the issues, seeking out conversations, providing evidence, and trying to support a broad and informed conversation.

4. We give people tools to host conversations in their place on the issues they want discussed – tools like Democracy Hacks, guidelines for hosting local events, shared advertising resources, and help with chairing and moderation.

5. We work to bring experts, think tanks and other projects (such as the ERS convention, if it happens) into the conversation with citizens, and reflect citizen views back in.

6. We take specific action to make sure that groups, places and issues that are underrepresented get support to be heard.

7. We close the event with a citizen jury or other deliberative event, as part of a wider democracy festival, that lets a representative sample of the public have their say on what participants have come up with.

This is not a short process. It should take us to the other side of the general election – which is no bad thing, as it means the end of the process will be outside the political pressures of campaign season.

It’s also not a fixed process – we know we want it to be open and involving, and to be listened to at the end. The way we get there will change and develop as we go along.

Most of all we want it to be a democratic and respectful process, not an elitist or confrontational one. We are going to kick it off in person in Edinburgh on 7 October, where we are launching Demsoc Scotland and Andy’s new book. Join us there, comment below, get involved. We don’t want to waste the energy. Let’s get going.


Published by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.