ERS Scotland hosts event to put the public’s ideas to the test

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 15th January 2013

On a chilly night in Edinburgh, ERS Scotland and the Public Policy Network at the University of Edinburgh held a participatory discussion on Scotland’s democracy in a lecture theatre. Not the ideal space for a discursive event, but thanks to excellent facilitation from Oliver Escobar the discussion was vibrant.

The event, Politics is too Important to be Left to Politicians, concluded phase 1 of ERS Scotland’s Democracy Max project – an inquiry into what makes a good Scottish democracy. So far we have held the People’s Gathering, and then asked a selection of academics, commentators, activists and thought leaders to consider the findings from that Gathering. The event this week was to showcase some of the conversations from those roundtables and ask for feedback from the wider public.

The first stage of the inquiry has considered why people feel so remote from politics and politicians, whether more local democracy might improve engagement, and has heard suggestions for innovative new consultation and discussion methods to try and reinvigorate the public’s interest in politics.

The chair of the roundtables, Esther Roberton, and one of the People’s Gathering participants, Carolyn Leckie spoke about local democracy and public consultation respectively. Willie Sullivan, Director of ERS Scotland, asked whether political parties need to be reformed if we are to improve engagement.

The mood in the room was certainly in favour of some kind of reform, acknowledging that where we are now is far from perfect. But what that reform might look like was definitely still up for debate.

So far Democracy Max has heard that people are increasingly uninterested in joining political parties, and are disenchanted with professional politicians. At this meeting, the tribalism of party politics was raised, and it was asked if changing public funding of parties to reflect local membership or internal democratic structures would be a means to encourage political party reform.

We then went on to talk about local democracy, and whether devolving more power to the local level would be a way of showing faith in the ability of communities to make their own decisions and would thus encourage involvement. The idea that Scotland is over-governed was questioned, given that we have fewer political representatives per head than many other European countries. The majority of people in the room were keen to see more power devolved locally, but it was not unanimous.

The final discussion session was in consideration of better consultation and involvement of Scotland’s citizens in the decision making process. One of the ideas that came out of the People’s Gathering was a citizens’ chamber. There were various ideas as to how exactly this would be constituted. For example one suggestion was that it would consist of a selection of citizens from across Scotland, chosen by lottery to sit for a fixed term with their existing job held for them. Although there was support for the proposal in the room, there were a number of people who felt unable to decide without more information. Would involvement be compulsory? Should the selection be from different sectors of the population, a third from working people, a third from the unemployed, and a third retired for instance? What relationship would the citizens’ chamber have with the Scottish Parliament?

This feeling that it is hard to commit to ideas without knowing exactly how they might be implemented was a common thread through the discussion, but the difficulty is that we the people are not responsible for deciding the precise future shape of Scotland’s democratic structures. Perhaps then the commitment we should be looking for from our political representatives as we continue to debate Scotland’s constitutional future, is for a wide ranging, fully participative and open discussion with all Scotland’s citizens that is genuinely prepared to hear innovative ideas and consider how they might be brought about. Certainly the overwhelming mood at the Democracy Max event was enthusiasm for democratic participation and for embracing new ways to consult, debate and discuss with a view to engaging everyone across Scotland.

The next step in the Democracy Max process is to write up the findings of this first stage including some recommendations and some questions for the next phase of the inquiry. That second stage is ‘Defending Our Democracy’, and will ask how we can protect our democracy from being captured by vested interests, such as corporate power, the media and wealthy individuals. It will also reflect on the findings so far. For instance, one of the questions asked about introducing new structures such as a citizens’ chamber was how we could be sure these new institutions would not themselves become bureaucratised, so that will also be one of the considerations for the second phase.

Find out more about Democracy Max

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