Review: Democratic Engagement for the UK event

photo 1Yes to Constitutional Convention, PR and voting age of 16 if we want to revive British democracy 

The event was chaired by Anoosh Chakelian, political journalist at the New Statesman, and the panel members were Alex Runswick, CE of Unlock Democracy; Andrew Copson, CE of British Humanist Association, Ian Scott, Acting CE and Gary McLelland, Policy & Public Affairs Officer of Humanist Society Scotland (outside their HSS roles, Ian was a Yes and Gary a No supporter) and Will Brett, Head of Campaigns & Communications of Electoral Reform Society.

Britain needs a citizen-led constitutional convention – a nationwide conversation about the kind of government and level of devolution we want – if the rest of the UK is going to enjoy anything like the grass-roots involvement Scotland had in the Referendum campaign. That was the consensus amongst pro-democracy and humanist campaigners at the event organised by London Humanists.

Representatives of Unlock Democracy, the Electoral Reform Society, the British Humanist Association (BHA) and Humanist Society Scotland (HSS) also said the electoral system needs to change from ‘First Past the Post’ to Proportional Representation in order to give people a reason to vote, and that young people should be able to vote from the age of 16.

Andrew Copson, BHA Chief Executive said, “The question of what kind of constitution we want is one of the biggest facing us. There is a risk that we will lose democracy if we don’t reform the structures. Let’s design the institutions that will deliver the outcomes we want.”

And Will Brett, Head of Campaigns at the Electoral Society, said the bread and butter issues like jobs and health are underpinned by constitutional issues: “All these issues like electoral reform and devolution are now live. This could be a turning point for democracy.”

Alex Runswick, CE of Unlock Democracy, formerly Charter 88, said the real process of politics is slow and complex, and that there needed to be more mechanisms like the Scottish Parliament’s Petitions Committee that allow people to propose ideas and participate more, so the focus is not just on what politicians do or don’t do.

Gary McLelland, Policy Officer at HSS, added that populist movements across Europe offered a silver bullet, like UKIP’s ‘stop immigration’ policy, which couldn’t deliver. In contrast, democracy requires difficult discussions: “Populism is the symptom of disengagement of people from politics.”

Ian Scott, CE of HSS, said the Referendum gave people in Scotland the opportunity to vote on something they felt mattered: “They believed that change was possible and that they could make a new start.”

Ian also opened the question of nationalism and identity: “Humanism is about rejecting dogmas and thinking for ourselves: we should reject national boundaries and recognise common humanity.” Andrew quoted Bertrand Russell’s essay Nationalism vs Human Development (1916) and said that nationalism starts positively but ends badly. Alex said the challenge of creating a federal state in the UK is that one unit, ie England, makes up 85% of the population of the whole, so for this to work, there would have to be decentralisation within England as well.

The discussion, ably led by Anoosh Chakelian, ranged widely over the post-referendum political landscape and mentioned several Scottish organisations which could provide role models, such as ‘Women for Independence’ and ‘Radical Independence Campaign’.

Audio Recording of the event: coming very soon. 

Reading list & links:

Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy call for a constitutional convention here.

British Humanist Association backs convention and argues for reform of the House of Lords here.

Unlock Democracy started as Charter 88 and the Charter started: “WE have been brought up in Britain to believe that we are free: that our Parliament is the mother of democracy; that our liberty is the envy of the world; that our system of justice is always fair; that the guardians of our safety, the police and security services, are subject to democratic, legal control; that our civil service is impartial; that our cities and communities maintain a proud identity; that our press is brave and honest. Today such beliefs are increasingly implausible.

Bertand Russell’s essay Nationalism vs. Human Development (1916):

‘Women for Independence’ campaign was a model for accessible politics.

Radical Independence Campaign – read about its purpose here.

Renwick, A. (2014) After the referendum: options for a constitutional convention. Report. The Constitution Society, London. pp126. ISBN 9780992890407

Anthony Lester 1991 – Civil rights

Unlock Democracy’s votematch – an “online voter quiz which aims to help you find the party that best matches your views at an election”.