Graham Smith: The problem with politicians and democracy…

I would complete the headline of Alex Sakalis’s interview with Graham Smith on openDemocracy with “… is that they are mutually exclusive” (at least if by “politicians” it is meant “elected politicians”). Smith, however, strikes a more tentative note:

Citizens’ priorities are not necessarily the same as those of their political representatives. […] What is clear is that citizens are willing and able to deliberate on complex and contested political issues. The question is whether they will be listened to by local and national political leaders. The evidence is not promising.

oD: Given the problems of representative democracy around the world – how important is the ‘mixed model’ of citizens’ assemblies for getting buy-in from citizens and politicians? […]

One of the major problems facing citizens’ assemblies and other participatory democratic processes is ensuring that outcomes have an impact on decision-making. Too often politicians either ignore or cherry-pick those recommendations that reinforce their existing views.

As a response to this situation, politicians made up one third of the Irish Constitutional Convention alongside randomly selected citizens: a ‘mixed model’. Politicians would act as an important link between the Convention and final decision-making and would bring significant knowledge of political practice into the deliberations. The evidence on parliamentary buy-in is weak however. Much has been made about the impact of the recommendations of the Convention on same-sex marriage on the successful national referendum in May 2015. But none of the other recommendations of the Convention have had significant impact on political decision-making. The presence of politicians did not generate the systematic political impact hoped for by organizers.


oD: How are we doing with convincing our political class that citizens’ assemblies can be organised effectively in the UK? […]

I am not sure how much support there is amongst the political class for such assemblies. Most Conservatives have always been reluctant and sceptical at best. There is still interest in Labour and other parties, but it is not clear what form citizen engagement will take. Citizens’ Assemblies remain only one model on the table. There are other voices more interested in mass mobilisation, that are suspicious of random selection. My sense is that there is little interest amongst the governing class.

Brexit offers a real opportunity for one or more assemblies to consider in depth pertinent constitutional and other issues related to leaving the European Union. But my sense is that there is little interest amongst the governing class.


[I]f the Brexit result tells us anything, it is that large parts of the population feel alienated from the political process. Opening up new forms of political participation to hear the voices of the politically marginalised is thus critical for the well being of our polity.

oD: You once wrote for us: “It is a prudent principle of constitutional design that those who are privileged within the current system (and who have strong interests in any alterations to the institutional architecture) should not hold [such] agenda-setting power. In other words, politicians should not have power over a process that could well further advantage their position within the system. (This is also a central argument as to why citizens rather than politicians or their surrogates should participate in a constitutional convention.)” […]

I still hold this view strongly. […]

One Response

  1. […] Against Elections was published in English and received some attention. In Canada and the UK sortition was discussed by academics. In the US, sortition was mentioned in a workshop of the […]


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