Richard Askwith: People Power

Richard Askwith, a former executive editor of The Independent, has a new book out:

People Power: If we want to defend our democracy we must expel the Lords and replace them with the people

In his new book, ‘People Power’, Richard Askwith makes the case for abolishing the House of Lords and replacing it with a citizens chamber of 400 people to bridge the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’


Here’s how [to reform Parliament]. We start in the obvious place, at the least democratic, southern end of the Palace of Westminster. We expel the occupants. And we give the House of Lords to the people.

We cannot put everyone in the chamber; nor can we sensibly put everything to referendum. What we could do, though, is create a People’s Chamber, whose 400 members, randomly conscripted from the electoral roll as jurors, would be a small, representative sample of the population as a whole.

The details are negotiable. Here’s one hypothetical version. Everyone eligible to vote is also eligible for selection by lot to serve in the chamber for a fixed term of, say, four years. Service is compulsory, well-paid and prestigious. The People’s Peers can wear ermine and, if they want, use titles; the financial rewards are comparable to a sizeable lottery win.
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Bouniol: The idea of a Citizens Chamber gains ground

Béatrice Bouniol has been showing some interest in sortition in her stories at La Croix. Last November, on the occasion of the publishing of a new book on the subject of “The Citizens Assembly of the Future”, Bouniol had the following story.

The idea of a Citizens Chamber gains ground

During COP 23, the Foundation for Nature and Man calls on France to make a democratic innovation by establishing a Citizen Assembly for the Future. Facing a crisis of representation, a citizens’ third chamber, an idea which has been discussed for about twenty years, gains ground.

On July 3rd, 2017, speaking in front of Congress, Emmanuel Macron proposed the transformation of the Social and Environmental Economy Council (CESE) into a Chamber of the Future, “a forum of our Republic” aimed at becoming “the crossroad of public deliberation”. Dominique Bourg, president of the scientific council of the Foundation for Nature and Man – created by Nicolas Hulot – having advocated the creation of such a chamber since 2011, was thus pleased at the proposal, but expressed his worry on the pages of La Croix that it could be a mere “rebranding – certainly necessary but far below what is desired.” The programmatic essay that appears today under his direction (Inventing the 21st Century Democracy: The Citizen Assembly of the Future. [Inventer la démocratie du XXIe siècle. L’Assemblée citoyenne du futur, Les Liens qui libèrent/Fondation pour la Nature et l’homme, 2017]) aims therefore to remind the President of the Republic of the conditions required for creating a Citizen Assembly for the Future.

The hall of the Social and Environmental Economy Council, at Iena Square, Paris.

In order to go beyond a feel-good formula, the establishment of a third parliament chamber must rest on an effort of democratic creativity, required by an unprecedented situation. At the age of the anthropocene (a new geological period defined by the impact of humans on their environment), reported by a group of researchers, it is necessary to systematically take into consideration of the impact of laws on the long term, that is, of their influence on the large scale physical and biological evolution of the planet.
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Official records lacking in EMA location allotment

Corriere dela Sera writes:

Doubts emerge over EMA ballot and “burnt” voting slips

Various aspects of assignment to Netherlands of EMA headquarters still unclear, also due to lack of official records regarding draw by lot

The assignment of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) to Amsterdam by lot – to the detriment of Milan – was made official at the EU General Affairs Council on 20 November. But it has now emerged that there is no documentary evidence to reassure European citizens everything was done correctly and according to the rules; the procedure displayed unprecedented anomalies and levels of secrecy, culminating in selection by lot. The representatives of Italy and the Netherlands were not even called to supervise the proceedings at close hand. “Even in children’s tournaments the referee allows the two team captains to watch the toss of the coin …”, commented one ambassador present on the day.

No checks
The ballot papers of the three rounds of voting by the ministers were immediately burned, and the speed with which the draw was performed made any checks either before or after impossible. Above all, on 20 November there was an attempt to shroud everything in the utmost secrecy, with not even the draw method made public. Moreover, since last week the EU Council has continued to refuse to give the Corriere any information on how the voting and count took place, let alone on the lot drawing procedure. We have been able to reconstruct what happened thanks to informal interviews with ministers and ambassadors present, who set greater importance on the value of transparency than on being sworn to secrecy.

Sortition in the Bulletin of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics

The Bulletin of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics has published a column of mine that deals with the historical and theoretical connections between democracy and statistical sampling:

Democracy and statistical sampling

For about 2,500 years, statistical sampling was closely linked with democracy. “Selection by lot is natural to democracy, as that by choice [i.e., elections] is to aristocracy,” asserted Aristotle in the 4th century BC, following his own first-hand experience at Athens and the conventional wisdom of his time. Montesquieu concurred in the first half of the 18th century. It was only in the last 200 years, as democracy displaced aristocracy as the legitimate organizing principle of politics, that sortition—the delegation of power by statistical sampling—had to be air-brushed out of history and political science. […]

As part of the attempt to dismiss sampling as a political device it is sometimes claimed today that its use in Athens was motivated by the superstition that randomization allowed the gods to make the selection. However, the historical record indicates that the main motivation behind the practice was the law of large numbers. It was expected that sortition would produce a group that would mirror the population in important respects. This was often stated as an expectation of resemblance between the population and the sample in terms of wealth and social status (i.e., that most members would be poor commoners) but it was taken for granted that these characteristics would be correlated with certain interests and beliefs.

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2017 review – sortition-related events

This is the end-of-year summary of notable sortition related events for 2017.

Readers wrote in their opinion that the most important sortition-related event of 2017 was the adoption by law in Mongolia of deliberative polling as part of its constitutional amendment process. The opinions in the exit survey of the deliberation poll “help shape the process of constitutional amendment the government undertakes”.

This event seems like a natural part of a decades-long trend of declining confidence in electoral systems and a more recent trend of increasing, if very preliminary and tentative, adoption of sortition-based political devices.

Worldwide, trust in elected government in 2017 remained low and showed no signs of recovery.

As in previous years, French speaking countries showed the most noticeable moves toward seeing sortition as a way to redistribute significant political power. In France, two of the three most successful presidential candidates in the 2017 elections, including the winner, Emmanuel Macron, were politicians who made sortition part of the political agenda. In November, La France insoumise allotted members of its constitutional convention. Sortition was also discussed, again and again in French media. Proposals for using sortition in Belgium and Switzerland received some attention.

Elsewhere in Europe, the allotted Irish Citizens’ Assembly sent its recommendations to the parliament with a referendum to follow. Sortition was also adopted by a branch of Podemos is Spain and was promoted by a party in Austria.

In the English speaking world, academics devoted some attention to sortition in workshops at McGill university and at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Outside of academia, a fairly robust polemic for sortition appeared in the US magazine Current Affairs. A book proposing sortition as an add-on to the electoral system was reviewed in the New York Times.

As another indication of increasing prominence of the idea of sortition in establishment circles, former UN secretary general Kofi Annan mentioned sortition in a speech he gave to the Athens Democracy Forum.

Finally, distribution-by-lot received fairly intense attention in Greece in the context of a debate over the mechanism of selection of flag bearers in schools.

Sortition in Switzerland

The Swiss news website 24heures has a story about sortition in Switzerland. (Original in French, my translation, corrections welcome.)

And if parliament members were allotted?

Democracy A seminar examines the use of sortition in Switzerland, which some citizens want to implement.

By Caroline Zuercher, 25.10.2017

Antoine Chollet, research professor at UNIL. Photo: Marius Affolter

Allotment is useful not only for selecting the winners in lotteries. A group of citizens, Generation Nomination, wants to use it for selecting our people’s representatives in Berne. In time, they place to launch a initiative to this effect. The mechanism is far from being new having already been used in ancient Greece. An international seminar, on Friday and Saturday at the university of Lausanne is examining exactly these experiences in Switzerland and in Europe.

Sortition has been used in various contexts. And it has not always been synonymous with democracy. Antoine Chollet, teaching assistant in the University of Lausanne, gives and example. In the 18th century Berne used it to name bailiffs and other magistrates, but only the members of noble families participated in the allotment. The goal was therefore about all to share power among the powerful.

Switzerland had more democratic experiences as well. Studies supported by the National Swiss fund for scientific research examined cases in Schwytz and in Glaris. “There, the people demanded allotment in order to reduce the corruption of the elites and to enhance the circle of powerful families”, explains the researcher. In Glaris at the end of the 18 century, for example, the deputies were for allotted among the entire body of citizens. With limited success: “Our research shows that it was transformed into a form of lottery. Those who were selected could resell their post: that was the great prize!”
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Peers at top of credibility rankings

The following data is from the “2017 Edelman Trust Barometer“, a multi-country opinion survey. Interestingly, the report seems to have generated very little press coverage.

The survey finds that in most countries surveyed, including all Western European countries surveyed, a majority of the population thinks the system is failing. In all countries surveyed, except for two, there are more people who think that the system is failing than people who think the system works. The exceptions are China and the UAE.

With loss of faith in electoralism reaching crisis levels, the mood seems ripe for democracy with trust in “a person like yourself” now at the top of the trust rankings.