Progress Magazine have published an article of mine.
By the people
We should inject the people directly into parliament, in the form of Citizen MPs
10 November 2009
Commentators say British parliamentary democracy is in crisis, that public outrage is taking on the tendency of ‘mob rule’ and may emasculate politics for a generation. What is certain is that the people are, with good reason, furious with their representatives. But if we are to move forward constructively, the anger felt by the public must be harnessed in a way that helps to reconstruct and improve our democratic system or it will be exploited by those who seek to undermine trust in politics, be they extremists or the most cynical elements of the media.
When it comes to democracy, the past can and should inform the present. With its genesis in ancient Greece, democracy, literally, means ‘the power of the people’. Yet it is Abraham Lincoln’s take on democracy - 'rule of the people, by the people, for the people' – which has gained common currency. Holding recent events up against its rigours is revealing. Ironically, far from being a crisis of democracy, perhaps the continuing shaming of parliamentarians in the court of public opinion is a triumph of democracy. After all, the strictures of the Kelly report show that ‘the people’, thanks to their henchmen in the Fourth Estate, have exerted their collective will upon their representatives. A tick for ‘rule of the people.’
Yet democracy is more than this. At the centre of public displeasure has been a sense that MPs have been acting in their own interests rather than those of their constituents. Again, the recent furore should lead to a system and behavioural standards that can better ensure that MPs rule ‘for the people’. Another tick for Abe.
But the second clause in Lincoln’s maxim, ‘rule by the people’, offers us the best chance of diverting public outrage into improving our political system. The best way to do this would be injecting a little direct democracy into our overtly representative system (notwithstanding the anachronistic House of Lords). To put it bluntly, we should inject ‘the people’ directly into parliament, in the form of ‘Citizen MPs.’ Citizen MPs, selected at random as with our jury system, would serve for a year and would inhabit a third of seats in both Houses of Parliament. They would place a block on the power of parties to whip legislation through our supine legislature. They would force both parliament and ‘the people’ to get better acquainted with one another. They would make our system more truly 'democratic' and would do much to bridge the gaping chasm between the populace and their representatives. Perhaps above all, they would restore a sense that as citizens we each have civic duties, up to and including making legislation and representing our fellow citizens.
This suggestion may get short shrift, but before it is dismissed out of hand, consider that the response of our MPs to the crisis to date as been woeful and shows little sign of improving despite Kelly’s alleged lancing of this particular boil. Consider also that the Kelly report itself recommends that ‘the people’ be brought into the hallowed environs of parliament in order to scrutinise MPs’ behaviour, in the form of lay members of both the Speaker’s Committee overseeing the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the Standards and Privileges Committee. Even some MPs have made murmurings, such as Patricia Hewitt, a champion of ‘citizen juries’ designed to help policy-formulation. People in think tanks, such as Guy Lodge of the ippr, and Matthew Taylor of the RSA, have looked at the concept. Anthony Barnett has even written the book ‘The Athenian Option: Radical Reform For The House Of Lords’.
Citizen MPs have excellent antecedents, as explained by Daniel Lightman, who was corresponding with me in the letters page of The Times earlier this year:
'In Ancient Athens, the day-to-day business of government was entrusted to the Council of Five Hundred, which was chosen annually out of the whole citizen body by lot. The only qualifications were that one had to be aged over 30 and of good standing.
The Athenians were not alone in recognising the value of using the lot to select a representative group of citizens. The Talmud records that Moses used lots to choose the 70 elders of the Children of Israel and the 22,000 designated first-born. “The ancients knew,” observed the renowned classical scholar Jowett, “that election by lot was the most democratic of all modes of appointment.” Selecting some MPs by lot would be the easiest way to ensure that truly independent voices are heard in Parliament.'
Of course there would be numerous practical and procedural difficulties to bringing in a system of Citizen MPs, but these can be overcome by a country that truly values democracy. To those who argue that citizens would not wish to be MPs, nor have the sufficient experience or understanding, I say that if no less a concept than justice can be served through citizens being selected at random to sit in juries, then there is no logical reason why a similar system ought not bestow on each of us the responsibility to serve the interests of an equally important concept – democracy.
John Slinger is a member of the Labour party’s national parliamentary panel, a former parliamentary researcher to Labour MPs and currently works as a public affairs consultant