Nick Clegg calls for sortition-based constitutional convention

Writing in the Sunday Times in the aftermath of the Scottish Referendum, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg proposes a citizen-jury based constitutional convention:

I welcome Labour’s decision to embrace the long-standing Liberal Democrat call for a constitutional convention — but it needs a precise mandate, beginning next year and concluding in 2017. It should have a citizen’s jury at its heart, representing every corner of the UK. One area it will need to address is the future of the House of Lords, which, in my view, would better serve people as an elected second chamber, in keeping with federal systems across the world. Ultimately, however, it will not be up to politicians — this process will be led by the people.

It’s often puzzled me that politicians are eager to use sortition as a way to determine complex constitutional issues, but we can’t be trusted to make everyday political decisions (the price of bread, tax rates, invading foreign countries, gay marriage etc). Clegg’s proposal also appears to confuse the notion of a jury (which determines the outcome of a debate) and political leadership — “this process will be led by the people” — reminding one of Ledru-Rollin’s epithet: “there go the people, I must follow them for I am their leader”. We won’t make any progress until the conceptual and practical distinction between these two aspects of politics (leadership and decision-making) is respected. In a democracy, political leaders can propose and advise but they should not determine the outcome — the decision should be in the hands of a statistically-representative microcosm of the citizen body. The problem in this particular instance, of course, is that English citizens would outnumber those of the other nations of the UK by an order of magnitude and the English would be unlikely to accept numerical parity between the nations (i.e. 1/4 of the composition of the citizen jury). So sortition, in this case, would only make the problem worse.

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9 Responses

  1. Clegg is winging it over a CJ (Citizens Jury) for constitutional reform. Having been a card-carrying LibDem for decades (!) until the ill-fated AV referendum, I have NEVER heard of any talk of using CJs in the Party.

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  2. Interesting. The article is very short of detail — the CJ just sounds like a nice way of letting “the people” decide. But “the people” are a statistical entity and there are 10 times more of them in England than the other nations, so sortition would be more likely to lead to civil war than a sensible resolution of the West Lothian question. I imagine Clegg had in mind equal samples from each nation but can you imagine UKIP-fearing Tory backbenchers falling for that?

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  3. Conall,

    I am curious – why did the AV referendum put you off the LibDems?

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  4. Clegg’s thinking seems simple enough. The LibDem’s only hope is probably some sort of electoral reform. Of all the options on the table a sortition-based constitutional convention is the one mostly likely to give them that even if it is a long-shot. If nothing else it seems safe to say a sortition-based convention would likely favor the same sort of additional member system used by Scotland and Wales for an English assembly, should one be created.

    I know it’s none of my business, but it doesn’t seem terribly prudent to have separate governments that represent 86% and 100% of a union free to act at cross purposes to each other.

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  5. But the convention would be for the UK, not just England, so what would be the basis for the population sampling? If it was purely numerical then the English would swamp everyone else; but the English would not consent to parity between the four nations. Given these numerical problems I don’t see how sortition could play any role at all in such a convention.

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  6. I had assumed the convention would be numerical, with the approval of all the UK nations in a referendum being needed for ratification. But that’s just an assumption.

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  7. I don’t think it will happen at all, he was just making pious-sounding noises. The Liberals are committed to regional devolution but there’s no appetite in the country for yet more politicians.

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  8. The French documentary about non-voting and real democracy is about to be subtitled in English, we’ll publish it in the comments when done! By the way, do you know if it could be possible to publish it on a media like The Guardian or Democracy Now? Has anybody a contact with them so we could try to have a bigger audience? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzcN-0Bq1cw

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  9. That’s great news – looking forward to this.

    I don’t have any connections with those media outlets, but I think DemocracyNow and The Real News Network (http://therealnews.com) would very likely be interested. I suggest that you contact them once this is ready. I’d be happy to help if any help would be useful.

    (BTW, we have a post about the film – here.)

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