Gordon Brown embraces citizens’ assemblies

In a thoughtful contribution to considering the governance of Britain in the context of the still running Brexit fiasco, Gordon Brown offers this suggestion:

We must renounce the unsatisfactory, inward-looking, partisan and inevitably piecemeal decision-making process of the past 30 months.

In the old days, political parties saw their role as aggregating and then articulating grassroots views. But to the British people the parties seem – like social media – to be dominated by those with the loudest voice.

[…]

I envisage bringing together in each region a representative panel of a few hundred citizens, engaging them in a day’s dialogue to deliberate on arguments presented by informed opinion leaders and advocates from both sides — and testing whether pro and anti-Brexit voters can find any common ground.

Thought Cages: a Parliament by lottery

Readers of this blog may be interested in this brief documentary radio program that recently went to air on BBC Radio 4.

A Parliament by Lottery

Could we fix the disconnect between the public and its politicians – by selecting our MPs by lottery?

In today’s episode, ad guru and expert on human behaviour Rory Sutherland explores how a “House Of The People”, comprised of a random cross-section of the British public – might be better at truly reflecting the considered will of the British people.

Rory is joined by the Australian political economist and expert on innovation Nicholas Gruen – who explains how the idea dates back to the Ancient Greeks – and the MP for Birmingham Yardley, Jess Philips, an elected parliamentarian who’s keener on the idea than you might expect…

From academic to pragmatic

Reading coverage of the UK’s Extinction Rebellion movement this week – which is beginning a campaign of civil disobedience in an attempt to pressure the British government into far more radical action to combat greenhouse gas emissions – I was intrigued to come across this:

The group also calls for the creation of a national Citizens’ Assembly to oversee “the changes necessary for creating a democracy fit for purpose”.

I can tell this will be a fun one for Equality by Lotters to contemplate.

For my own part, I got belted on the arms and peppered sprayed by Danish police in Copenhagen in 2009 in an attempt to chronicle what it felt like to take part in a civil disobedience action linked to global climate change negotiations. I did it deliberately to better understand the experience of civil disobedience – an approach inspired by the late, legendary US writer George Plimpton.

He called it participatory journalism. I experienced it as pretty stressful.
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Social Inventions Journal Extracts on Sortition

Here, for the sake of bibliographic completeness, are proposals for forms of sortition published in the Social Inventions Journal’s (SIJ), annual compilations from the Institute for Social Inventions, up until 2002, when it ceased publication.

Additional suggestions were posted to its website for several more years, until it was hacked and disabled, making it impossible for me to look through it. Its backup versions on the Wayback Machine do not allow one to see more than the first 25 or so entries under its “Politics” category. (I wish some charitable foundation would fund its restoration to archive status, at a minimum.)

From Re-Inventing Society, 1994, “Random selection of Lords,” by T.M. Arting Stoll, page 190

How about random selection from the population of people to serve one year in a Senate replacing the Lords?

From Best Ideas, 1995, “Voter juries, vetoes and feedback,” by Geof Mulgan and Andrew Adonis, page 245

[SIJ Editor’s note:] Adapted extract from an article by Geof Mulgan and Andrew Adonis in Lean Democracy, issue No. 3, £5, of a journal from the think tank Demos, 9 Bridewell Place, London EC4V 6AP (tel. 0171 353 4479, fax 0171 3534481; e-mail Demos@Demon.Co.UK>).

If democracy means self-government, it is doubtful whether Britain and other western countries should be called full democracies.

A critical democratic dimension, the personal involvement of citizens in government, has gone almost entirely neglected.

We have three moderate, specific proposals for change:

Voter juries [good term—RK]: the piloting, at the national and local level, of voter juries to assess the pros and cons of contested policy proposals. They would be established on a similar basis to judicial juries, but without formal constitutional authority.

Voter vetoes: The introduction of voter vetoes, giving citizens at national and local level the right to call consultive referenda on strongly contested legislation or council decisions. At national level one million citizens would need to sign a petition for a referendum to take place.

Voter feedback: Local experiments to engage people in deliberation on local issues of controversy using the combined television and telephone networks being built by cable companies in conurbations, in collaboration with local authorities and other local institutions.

From Creative Speculations, 1997, “Citizen juries for considering policy options,” by the Institute for Public Policy Research, pages 234–36
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Tim Dunlop: It’s time to replace voting with sortition

In 2014 Tim Dunlop had just been introduced to the idea of sortition by David Van Reybrouck. He was “not completely convinced by his [Van Reybrouck’s] argument, but [was] sufficiently incensed by our current parliamentary democracy and its many failures to at least consider what he suggests.”

Four years later, Dunlop has written a book advocating sortition, and has an article in the Guardian that opens with an unambiguous statement:

If we want to fix the way our governments work, the first thing we should do is replace voting with sortition in at least some of our governing bodies.

Like many feel-good reformists, Dunlop puts much emphasis on the potential for fostering deliberation, trust and respect amongst the members of the allotted chamber and by extension, in the population at large. However, bucking the norm among such reformists (including Van Reybrouck), Dunlop’s message is very clearly democratic in the most fundamental sense (i.e., making power representative) and his rejection of elections and its elitist implications is uncompromising.

If we are really serious about bottom-up reform of our democratic institutions, then reforming the seat of government itself in this way, a way that installs ordinary people at the heart of power, is essential. Our neoliberal economy and the representative form of government that dominates our societies do everything they can to divide us from and pit us against each other. A People’s House transcends these divisions and brings us together. The basic concept of sortition is pretty straight-forward, and introducing it as a replacement for voting in, say, the Australian Senate, while leaving that body’s other powers intact, represents, at least administratively, fairly minimalist change. But on every other level, the potential effect is explosive. In one fell swoop, you diminish the power of the parties and that of many of the lobbyists who exist to influence their decisions. You transform the way in which the media covers politics. You hand control of at least part of the legislative process to a genuinely representative sample of the population as whole, rather than vesting it in a bunch of elites and their representatives. You empower people in a way that the current system could never hope to do, and you reconnect our chief democratic institution with the life in common.

Nothing is going to change until the main source of power in our society, our seat of government, is populated by people who are genuinely representative of the society at large. We have been taught forever that the way to do that is by voting, but that is simply wrong, and the quicker we unlearn it the better, no matter how counterintuitive it might seem at first. If you want a truly representative government of, by and for the people, then you need to choose it not by voting, but by sortition.

1768: Scheme of a Political Lottery, for the Peace of the Kingdom

The following letter to the Political Register and Impartial Review of New Books, printed in London in 1768, offers sortition of parliament as a way to remedy the corruption of elections. Thanks to Terry Bouricius for drawing attention to this historical piece.

Scheme of a Political Lottery, for the Peace of the Kingdom

It is proposed, on or soon after the breaking up of the present parliament, to open a lottery of 2262 tickets at 1000l. each, three blanks to one prize; which prize shall entitle the possessor to a seat in parliament for the place therein mentioned: by which scheme the noisy and expensive business of electioneering (which puts the whole kingdom in ferment) will be over in two hours, many people have an opportunity of serving their country cheap, and much bribary and corruption be prevented.

The the produce (deducting five per cent. to be set apart for guzzle, and to be equally distributed in every borough) be applied towards paying the national debt. That the lottery be drawn in the court of requests, on the day appointed for the meeting of p——t, and that the members so elected do immediately adjourn to the house of commons, appoint a speaker, &c. and then proceed to business. This will effectually prevent all designs of bad ministers, and more especially if their tools should draw blanks, as no person can have more than one ticket, and that not transferable; lest the courtiers, nabobs, or adventurers, should engrose the whole and buy and sell the nation.

Sortition advocate arrested for allegedly planning to blow himself up on election day

On October 10th, various news outlets have reported that the FBI has arrested Paul Rosenfeld in NY, USA for allegedly planning to blow himself up with the goal of drawing public attention to the idea of sortition. The New York Daily News writes:

Rockland County man arrested for building 200-pound bomb, plotting to detonate it in DC on election day

A Rockland County man who cops say built a 200-pound bomb he was planning to explode in Washington, D.C., in an Election Day suicide attack was arrested Wednesday.

Paul Rosenfeld, 56, of Tappan, was busted on federal charges of manufacturing an explosive device.

“As alleged, Paul M. Rosenfeld concocted a twisted plan to draw attention to his political ideology by killing himself on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. — risking harm to many others in the process,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said.

“Rosenfeld’s alleged plan for an Election Day detonation cut against our democratic principles.”

NBC News write:

New York man wanted to blow himself up on the National Mall on Election Day

Paul Rosenfeld was arrested on charges that he built a bomb and planned to kill himself with it to draw attention to beliefs in ancient election system.

The FBI has arrested an upstate New York man accused of building a bomb that he intended to use to blow himself up on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Election Day, authorities said Wednesday.

Court documents say Paul Rosenfeld, 56, of Tappan, wanted to draw attention to his belief in “sortition,” the ancient practice of randomly selecting legislators out of a pool of eligible voters.

The press release by the U.S. Department of Justice is here.

In 2015 Paul Rosenfeld has published an essay on Equality by Lot titled “The Extinction of Politics“. The article has been linked to by some of the reports of the arrest.