Last week a Twitter user called @Posh_Jock made what at the time I thought was a flippant remark. “ I was just wondering……..would you consider running the country for us?……please..pretty please ”. I dismissed this in a light hearted way but then @GailMac27 supported the idea: “Don’t sell yourself short. I’ve often thought that what we really need is individuals like you as opposed to the bunch of self serving charlatans currently occupying the green benches on both sides of the house!” So, I’ve decided to appoint myself as your President. No – that is a joke. And, not a very good one at that. But it got me thinking were I to become leader of the U.K. (and let me just say for the sake of clarity that is not going to happen) what would be my priorities.
I suppose my first act were I in a position to create a socialist society would be to get rid of the very idea of leaders and followers. I know this sounds absurd because we are so conditioned to think in terms of ‘strong leaders’ but it is precisely the idea that one person can somehow make decisions for all of us that infantilises the population. The French philosopher Rousseau notes in The Social Contract: “As soon as public service ceases to be the chief business of the citizens, and they would rather serve with their money than with their persons, the State is not far from its fall. When it is necessary to march out to war, they pay troops and stay at home: when it is necessary to meet in council, they name deputies and stay at home. By reason of idleness and money, they end by having soldiers to enslave their country and representatives to sell it.”
I remember the first time I read this thinking that it is so much easier to pay somebody to make all your decisions than make them yourself, but when you do that the decisions are likely to serve the interests of those you pay rather than those doing the paying. How obviously true this is when considered against Gail’s comment above.
The counter argument is that in a complex society such as Britain, America or any of the so-called democracies, there are simply too many people for everybody to be involved in all the decisions that affect them. I don’t think that is a good reason for not changing the way we make decisions. There is a considerable literature around the use of citizens juries which are used extensively in some countries and rather more sparingly in others. Let me be clear though whilst a citizens jury consists of a random selection of citizens who meet to deliberate upon a particular issue as far as I know nobody has yet suggested that they should replace representative democracy altogether. I wonder whether some of the appeal of our current system of elections is that, apart from ensuring that most representatives are from a very narrow strata of society, that they also bring short term excitement, particularly for the press who must find it quite tedious having to spend hours obscuring what the Government are doing.
The experiments in citizens juries carried out in some of our so-called democracies suggest that, surprise, surprise, if you provide ordinary people with the facts they tend to reach informed decisions. If you empower people to ask questions they are remarkably dogged in using that power to find out what they want to know. In 2014 a team of Australian researchers led by Jennifer Whitty reached the following conclusion:
“There is evidence of growing political disengagement among the citizens of many OECD countries and of increasing lack of trust in political leaders and representatives at all levels of government. However, there is also evidence that some citizens are willing to participate in more thoughtful and intensive forms of political debate, especially if these are seen to make a tangible contribution to policy developments.”
Some of the problem of citizens juries grafted on to our current system is to be found in that phrase “some citizens are willing”. The issue is that the citizens who are unwilling to take part tend to be from the higher and lower income stratas, the former because, frankly, they tend to get their own way anyway and the latter because they lack the confidence to put themselves into a forum which will look from the outside very much like the educational experience they often fell foul of as youngsters.
Policy makers have experimented with the idea of citizens juries but never in such a way as to challenge the status quo, leading some to regard them rather cynically as a ploy to make unpopular decisions the fault of somebody other than those implementing them. In Scotland a jury was brought together to debate wind farms but as Shared Future note:
“Roberts and Escobar’s reflection on the two day Scottish wind farm citizens jury noted that after discounting breaks, introductory sessions and so forth the two day process only left some 8 hours to hear witness presentations and to deliberate. ‘It seems clear that conducting a process like this in two days has considerable limitations, and it would not be advisable in real decision-making processes. Time constraints were indeed at the heart of most shortcomings in this project’. (Roberts and Escobar 2015)”
According to the Jefferson Institute a citizens jury, if it is to be effective, should last for a minimum of a week. But, if time is a constraint a parliamentary paper from 2007 points to an even more significant downside:
“Clearly, because they involve only a small number of people they are unlikely to reflect fully the views of the wider population.”
The representative closed shop
The criticisms of citizens juries really encapsulate the problem of representative democracy. The system we have now whilst formally open is actually very good at maintaining what is a relatively closed shop where, as I’ve written previously, our parliaments tend to be dominated by a very specific strata of people. In the U.K. your chances of being an MP increase considerably if you have been to a private school or to Oxbridge universities. Of the 800 Lords in the second unelected chamber 262 of them are members of the Conservative Party. In 2005 the Sutton Trust found that 62% of the Lords were privately educated, a figure which rises to 79% amongst Conservative members and 98% among hereditary peers. So, whilst the odd ‘commoner’ can get onto those green benches very few will have come from my council estate background. It is as if being privately educated gives you a very particular entitlement to tell others what is best for them.
The sense of entitlement that comes from being part of an established elite means that you take it for granted that you know more than those below you. But the trick is to present this elitism as if it is the fault of the politically illiterate masses. As Matteo Bergamini CEO of the youth network Shout Out UK, pointed out in an online interview: “Many young people, and people in general are politically illiterate … This is not to say people are stupid, but simply that if your education is completely devoid of a subject, naturally you will know nothing about it.” He runs workshops aimed at young people to increase their understanding of politics. His company is getting rich doing so, and I suspect that no matter how sincere he is the underlying project is the maintenance not the destruction of the capitalist system.
Citizens juries are not the answer to the democratic deficit which ensures that for the majority of people, most of the time, politics is what others do to them, occasionally for them, but rarely by them. I don’t believe that because people vote for parties that act against their interests that they are stupid. Elections are a circus of lies and deceit whose main function is to convince ordinary people that they have a say in their own lives when any objective analysis will tell you that very little changes as a result of any given election. Sure, taxes may go up or down, policy may swing (on a narrow pendulum) from public to private provision, cronyism and corruption may increase or decrease slightly, but essentially elections give you an opportunity every few years to cede your political control to the class that had it in the first place.
So why have I taken so long to talk about citizens juries? I’ve been lucky, or unlucky, enough to be called for legal jury service twice. On both occasions I found myself surrounded by people from very ordinary backgrounds. For all their talk of civic duty the middle classes tend to avoid jury service like the plague. What I found on both occasions was a group of people who were determined to enact justice. On both occasions I was the most formally educated person on the panel, but although there were people with naive or racist views the majority wanted to reach the correct conclusion and worked hard to assess the evidence as had been presented to them.
The reason I raise this is that those who currently have the power to make decisions that affect our lives are incredibly reluctant to cede any part of that power to those they consider their intellectual inferiors. Their belief in their own superiority is matched only by their evident inability to separate their prejudice from actual evidence. When found out, as we have seen recently, so sure of their position are they that lying is not a last resort but used as regularly as the truth so that what is actually true is so obscured that truth itself becomes just an opinion to be challenged by so-called journalists whose main interest is their own career. Sometimes it feels that the Eton educated buffoons currently ensconced in Westminster are playing some strange ritualistic game to see who can get away with telling the most outrageous lie. At the moment, it is probably neck and neck between Johnson, Gove and Hancock, but rest assured Starmer will try to emulate them when they eventually admit him to the club, something he clearly desires more than anything else.
My experience of jury service, my years working in factories and building sites convinces me that ordinary people are not well educated in the formal sense, but they are far from stupid. If they sometimes make, what to we on the left consider, irrational choices it is because they have been left with no real hope of change. And, crucially, no real expectation that they should ever have a say in the running of their own lives. Poverty is not, for them, a statistic any more than racism is for those with black or brown skins or accents that single them out as different. These are lived realities and that people give up on change has been encouraged by a politics that argues for better leaders of the current system rather than a better system where leadership is given to those best equipped for dealing with particular problems. The leaders we have now may be part of the problem, but simply changing leader does not change the system. Citizens juries, as flawed as they are, point to a possibility that we can move beyond the narrow confines of parliamentary democracy and its incestuous coupling to capitalist elitism and actually empower people to run their own lives.
Imagine this. You were part of a community that met whenever there was a decision to be made. Every member of that community would have an equal right to speak and to be listened to. And the right not to. That your deliberative forum (to give it a fancy sounding name) was empowered to seek expert advice and guidance to enable it to make decisions based on evidence rather than emotion or prejudice (not that these have no place in our deliberations but should not be the sole motivation for any decision). That employers, most of whom would have forums of their own so that the workers could take part in decision making affecting their own workplace, would have to allow you time off to take part in these forums. That each forum, consisting perhaps of 100-200 households, would randomly select individuals on a regular basis to take part in larger forums where the issues went beyond their locality, and those representatives would be changed regularly to avoid the emergence of a political class. Where schools taught children democracy not as some abstract idea called citizenship studies, but rather in the practical management of the school through forums which included teachers and taught. It may sound fanciful, but it was precisely these notions that guided the very first forms of democracy in Athens and Rome, and principles which came briefly to fruition in the Paris Commune and the soviets of the Russian Revolution. I can feel you nodding along but see in your eyes that it sounds like some form of utopian nonsense. But, from the depth of a tunnel it can be difficult to see the light at the other end and give up all hope when all that is ever needed is to make the first step.
So, thank you to those who think I would make a good leader, but I must politely decline. You do not need a benign leader to make a rotten system work you need a change of that system so that we have a genuine democracy that works for everybody. That starts from imagining a better world, believing such a world is possible and doing what you can to bring that world into existence.
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