Tuesday 4 September 2007

Citizens' juries will weaken not strengthen democracy

Gordon Brown continues his efforts to fashion a 'new politics' and to overcome widespread disengagement with the political process. Once again this has included floating the notion of 'citizens' juries' to debate key issues. So far commentators have been sympathetic to the general aim of re-engaging voters, but equivocal about the method proposed. In The Guardian Michael White argues that 'simply to ring around the thinktanks and pressure groups serves to highlight the problem' and that to give real power to such forums 'crosses the line between direct democracy and the traditional representative variety to which party politicians such as Mr Brown still give primacy'. His fellow columnist Polly Toynbee believes Brown 'is right to point to vibrant expressions of civic life in parallel but apart from the political process' and challenges sceptics to 'offer their own solutions', but at the same time thinks his proposals open a 'Pandora's box'. The Times leader is pretty hostile to the whole idea:

This has become an immensely trendy concept in certain circles, despite having been around in various guises for years, with no compelling evidence that they improve the quality of governance. They involve bringing together a number of normal people to look at challenging issues — such as youth crime and the organisation of the NHS — providing them with what is allegedly a neutral assessment of “the facts” and asking them to reach conclusions (which may or may not then be adopted).

Why such people are to be deemed more accountable than politicians is unclear. How they would glean more from “the facts” than senior civil servants is as uncertain. It also seems something of a contradiction to hold a conference designed to encourage more people to vote while suggesting at the same time that glorified focus groups, not Parliament, should shape decisions.

I agree. As I've argued before, citizens' juries weaken rather than strengthen democracy and threaten to replace accountable representation with factionalism and communalism. Here's what I said last time the idea was floated:

Although the idea sounds nice and empowering, it's actually the opposite. As with other experiments in 'direct democracy', it's not really democratic, but populist: government by focus group. Members of citizens' juries speak for no one but themselves, so politicians are able to listen earnestly and then ignore the results. As with government attempts to appeal 'over the heads' of the unions to individual members, it undermines the whole notion of representative democracy.

People who volunteer for things like citizen's juries tend to have an unusually wonkish interest in political meetings, or have an axe to grind, or have a lot of time on their hands: in other words, they tend to be unrepresentative of the majority of the population. That's why representative democracy works: it enables the busy majority to elect others to represent their collective interests. Of course, Brown's proposals are a response to a sense that people are disillusioned with representative politics. But the answer isn't to abandon it in favour of 'government by consultation' that treats people as disaggregated individuals and therefore actually entrenches the power of politicians, but to find ways to reinvigorate it: that's the challenge.

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