Radical reform: selecting 5-10% of councillors by lot

Vernon Bogdanor, Research Professor at the Institute for Contemporary British History at King’s College London and Professor of Politics at the New College of the Humanities, advocates bold, radical reforms:

Local government reform

One way that our democratic system can face these challenges is by making local government `Self Government’ once again. […] Local government is the best arena for the next phase of constitutional reform, but something much more radical than elected mayors is needed.

Selection by lot

That more radical innovation might be found in the principle of sortition—selection by lot. That principle was first adopted in fifth‐century Athens, a direct democracy, but it is perfectly feasible to extend participation in a modern democracy.

A small proportion of councillors—say 5 per cent or 10 per cent—could be selected randomly by lot from the electoral register. Participation would be voluntary but most of those selected would probably be willing to do so. That would increase the representation of the young and of members of ethnic minorities, groups markedly under‐represented in most local authorities. These councillors could decide what was best for their communities without being beholden to party.

Van Reybrouck: Belgium’s democratic experiment

David Van Reybrouck has a piece in politico.eu about the new sortition-based bodies in Belgium.

Those looking for a solution to the wave of anger and distrust sweeping Western democracies should have a look at an experiment in European democracy taking place in a small region in eastern Belgium.

Starting in September, the parliament representing the German-speaking region of Belgium will hand some of its powers to a citizens’ assembly drafted by lot. It’ll be the first time a political institution creates a permanent structure to involve citizens in political decision making.
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Delanoi: Sortition does not replace elections, it complements them

Simon Blin interviews Gil Delanoi in the Liberation. Original in French.

Gil Delanoi, a researcher at Sciences-Po, a sortition expert, promotes this procedure as a fundamental improvement of the democratic system, provided that it is used in an ad-hoc fashion. [Editor’s note: This sub-headline seems to be a misrepresentation of Delanoi’s position – see below. – YG.]

Gil Delannoi, professor at Sciences-Po and researcher at Cevipof, has just published a new book Sortition: how should it be used? (Sciences-Po Press). According to him, this procedure, if it is well-established, could improve the representation of the diversity of the electorate.

How can sortition cure the malaise of democratic representation and participation?

As opposed to voting, sortition does not aggregate voices but rather subsamples people from a group in order to delegate a task to them, whether a deliberative, an advisory or a decision-making task. From this perspective, sortition complements voting because it allows breaking out of the legislative logic where only representatives make the law and are concerned with it and where the administration applies it. This way, sortition does not replace elections but completes them. It is certainly possible to combine the two processes.

What form should it take?

Sortition is adaptable. There are at least as many ways to allot as there are to vote. It all depends on the objective that is sought. Sortition can be mandatory or volutary. In the first case it is a duty, in the other it is a right. The size of the sample is also very important. If the allotment aims to construct a mirror of the population, it is preferable to have a large number of people involved in order to create a detailed picture. That said, even if we allot a few people, we already a sample that is more representative than that of a simple vote, particularly in terms of age, gender and profession. We may need allotments of size 10,000 or 1,000 people. Logically, the larger the number the more accurate is the representation. In the case of court juries, where sortition is regularly used in France, it is evident that the group must be able to really have a discussion. Here the optimal size is on the order of 10 to 50 people. The larger the sample, the more difficult this is.
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The Principle of Rotation

Let me share part of the section called “The Principle of Sortition” in E. S. Staveley’s 1972 book, Greek and Roman Voting and Elections. In spite of its title, the section might better have been titled, “The principle of rotation,” since Staveley argues that rotation in Athens was “more fundamental by far” than sortition. I am not an academic, and I would be interested in hearing what the reception was for Staveley’s thesis among his colleagues. Only a few reviews of the book are available to me, and they seem to have been written by specialists in Roman rather than Greek politics. He seems to be shooting across their bow. Was anybody listening?

It certainly stands to reason mathematically that the more posts are available only once in a lifetime, and the shorter their term limit, the more rotation would become the operating principle. This would set up what the Romans later would call a Cursus Honorum, a career trajectory where the average Athenian would gain active experience in every aspect of local governance, from finance to foreign policy. Unlike the Cursus Honorum, though, the order or life stage in which the citizen held a position mattered less than variety of exposure to various workshops in what Pericles called the “school of Athens.”
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Sénat Citoyen and Citizens’ Assemblies

Sénat Citoyen is a French organization whose manifesto offers the following principle:

For every authority, government or elected assembly, there must exist an allotted citizen assembly which monitors, creates proposals and controls this authority.

Citizens’ Assemblies is a book by the Polish activist Marcin Gerwin which he describes as “a step-by-step presentation of how to organise a citizens’ assembly, with the primary focus on the city level”. It is available online for free in 6 languages.

On the website Gerwin lists “Basic standards for organizing citizens’ assemblies”, which are:

  1. Random selection of participants
  2. Demographic representation
  3. Independent coordination
  4. Citizens’ assembly can invite experts
  5. Inclusion of a widest practical range of perspectives
  6. Inviting all stakeholders
  7. Deliberation
  8. Openness
  9. Sufficient time for reflection
  10. Impact
  11. Transparency
  12. Visibility

Politics as a profession

In a recent debate with Etienne Chouard, among quite a few fallacies and hypocritical talking points, Raphaël Enthoven makes an interesting point regarding the role of training in politics (about 23 minutes into the recording) [my transcription and translation, corrections welcome]:

The fact is that, as Plato argues, politics is a profession.

[ Chourad interjects: “Plato was an aristocrat!” ]

Politics is a profession, even if you ask a democratic such as yourself. Even if you ask yourself. How would you explain the place that you accord in [your book] “Notre Cause Commune” [“Our Common Cause”], in your work, in your blog, always, since 2005, to constituent workshops? The fundamental role that you assign to instruction and to training of citizens? Isn’t it in order to give citizens the means to exercise correctly, properly and competently (if you excuse the adverb) the powers they were temporarily entrusted with?

It is obvious that politics is a profession and requires information. This profession, this information, must be open to all. There should be an equality of opportunity, there should be a wealth of opportunities for democratic practice and learning, including through sortition. Saying, however, that the equality of rights, the equality of competence would justify that each and every person would govern successively, as they did in Athens – a very small city – appointed by sortition and as a part time job, ignores the fact that it is the exercise of power that relieves incompetence, unprofessionalism, and lack of skills.

An unpublished column on sortition and Brexit

From around January this year I’ve tried to get the column below published – in the Guardian UK where my previous column was published. Unfortunately, and even after endless cajoling via the Guardian at this end, I couldn’t get a reply which is piss poor but there you go. Martin Wolf tried for me at the FT. At least they responded – but with a ‘no’, which is fair enough given the oversupply of articles on Brexit. Anyway as it fades into irrelevance and the Brexit Brouhaha Burbles on I thought I’d pop it up here.

The result of the 2016 Brexit referendum looms over the career politicians assembled in the Palace of Westminster as the black monolith loomed over the apes in the movie 2001.

It’s taken over thirty months of thrashing through actual options – as opposed to the wild partisan imaginings in the campaign – for a ghastly, if entirely foreseeable realisation to dawn. Despite the people’s clear instruction to Leave, any specific way of doing so would command far less than the 48 percent vote for Remain.

In the teeth of the greatest crisis of British statecraft since World War II, the institutional imperatives of political combat ensure the politicians perform rather than deliberate. Not only Corbyn, but extraordinarily enough, May has clung to fantasies about getting a better deal, though the end game will presumably see her change her tune.

How did it come to this? Continue reading