Friday 7 September 2007

Against consensus politics

Hot on the heels of Gordon Brown's plan for citizen's juries come Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell's own proposals for overcoming voter apathy. Ming's big idea is a written constitution, which I wholeheartedly support, but he wants it to be ' the public'. And how exactly will this work? 'We propose a constitutional convention, at least 50% of which would be composed of members of the public, drawn by lot.' As with citizen's juries, the aim - to revive democracy - is laudable, but the proposed method would have precisely the opposite effect.

So, Ming: imagine that your selection of random members of the public turns out (as is entirely possible) to consist of a fair smattering of vocal BNP supporters, Islamic fundamentalists, animal rights extremists, Fathers for Justice campaigners, Catholic anti-abortionists, and so on. How are you going to deal with their demands that the constitution should include - for example - equal rights for pets, the right for local communities to practise sharia law - and exclude rights to abortion or immigration? Will you listen 'respectfully' to these diverse views, as is the custom in consultative processes of this kind, and try to be 'inclusive' of all shades of opinion, however eccentric? And on what grounds will your convention opt for one opinion over another? It can't be on the normal democratic principle that it represents a majority view, since your convention members, being randomly chosen, will represent no one but themselves.

This scenario points to the flaw in all attempts to develop a 'new politics' based on a bland and elusive consensus. There's a post by Rumbold at Pickled Politics, defending party politics and suggesting that conflict and disagreement are essential to the political process: s/he is arguing from a Conservative standpoint, but as a democratic socialist, I agree. In a plural society with a multitude of diverse opinions and interest groups, politics is about argument and persuasion. Ideas have to be fought for, and at the end of the day, some will win, some will lose. To choose a topical example: between those who believe that freedom of expression is a fundamental constitutional principle, and those who argue that religious believers should have special legal protection against being 'offended', there can be no consensus.

Ming's proposal is not only anti-democratic, it's also anti-intellectual. Behind it is the reasonable-sounding assumption that we need to get away from reliance on an elite of 'experts' and listen to the opinions of 'ordinary' people. But why should a randomly-selected group of people who have never thought about the issue come up with a better constitution than those who have been arguing and debating about the issues for years? Choosing people by lots not only excludes unelected experts, it also undermines all the finely-tuned structures and processes of civil, democratic society - trade unions, local councils, voluntary organisations, campaign groups - who not only have some claim to be representative of and accountable to the people, but might actually have coherent ideas about the issues involved.

The Lib Dem plans would entrench rather than overcome the perceived divide between the political class and 'the public'. With apologies to The Prisoner, they make me want to shout out: 'I'm not a member of the public, I'm a citizen!' Only in a half-democracy like ours - actually a hybrid between monarchical-hereditary and democratic government - could the majority be conceived of as 'the public', a homogenous mass over against the politicians and the experts, rather than 'the people' whose elected representatives are actually us - the people - (temporarily) in government.

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