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December 8, 2010

Random selection – better than election?

In 5th century Athens, instead of being elected, civic leaders were chosen by lot – a direct democracy. In 2004, British Columbia randomly selected a Citizens’ Assembly to work on a new electoral system for the province.  Both models enjoyed success and both suggest the contribution of the ordinary citizen in government is being overlooked. Vernon Bogdanor in the Times argues that party hacks are killing local government – he argues random selection of local councillors would sort it

Vernon Bogdanor, The Times

The stranglehold of party hacks is killing local government: random selection could stop it

We should become more active members of society, rather than mere passive beneficiaries: this is one of the coalition’s central themes. David Cameron’s Big Society seeks to shift power away from the centre to citizens and communities, while the Liberal Democrats have long believed in the decentralisation of power.

Crucial to a renewal of community must be the revival of local government, which ought to be government by lay people rather than professional politicians. In 1894, Josef Redlich, an Austrian politician and and academic, observed that “England has created for herself ‘self government’ in the true sense of the word — that is to say, the right of her people to legislate, to deliberate and to administer through councils or parliaments elected on the basis of popular suffrage . . . and this is the root of the incomparable strength and health of the English body politic”. Local government badly needs to became “self government” once again.

For today it has become far removed from Redlich’s inspiring vision. Indeed, so attenuated is it as a result of the depredations of governments of both Left and Right that it is now a merely marginal element of the British constitution. The main reason for this is the excessive dominance of political parties in most local authorities. Indeed, given the trend towards backbench rebellion in the Commons, discipline is probably tighter in much of local government than it is at Westminster.

It is a paradox that the greater the fall in party identification, the more strongly the parties have entrenched themselves in local government. Many councillors are seen, in consequence, as emissaries of their parties, members of the political class, representing not “us” but “them”.

Although turnout rates for local elections are low, there are striking indications of an unsatisfied demand for participation. Around 40 per cent of us belong to a voluntary organisation, while three million 18 to 24-year-olds, the very generation least likely to vote, volunteer each year. The democratic spirit in Britain is healthy, but it badly needs an institutional path through which it can be expressed.

One way to do this is to select a small proportion of councillors — say a tenth or a twentieth — randomly by lot from the electoral register. Those selected would include the young and members of ethnic minorities, groups markedly under-represented in most local authorities. It would be voluntary in that one could refuse to accept the role, but those who did serve would be genuine independents. They could decide what was best for their communities without being beholden to party.

Fifth-century Athens, a direct democracy, chose its office holders by lot. But there is no reason why the same principle should not be adapted to a modern representative system. This was achieved in British Columbia in 2004, when a Citizens’ Assembly was established to propose a new electoral system for the province, to be put to the people in a referendum.

The Assembly was selected randomly, to include one man and one woman from each electoral district. It collected written and oral evidence, and held 50 public hearings. Its report, Making Every Vote Count, was duly put to referendum. This experiment shows that ordinary citizens are perfectly capable of undertaking complex governmental tasks. Over the 11-month term of the Assembly, attendance was close to perfect and just one member withdrew.

Oscar Wilde once said that the prime defect of socialism was that it took up too many evenings, but the experiment in British Columbia shows that it is perfectly feasible to extend participation in a modern democracy, and such participation need not be the exclusive province of the better-off and the better-educated.

Like most other democracies, we in Britain have hardly begun to harness the potential of the ordinary citizen. What better place to begin than with local government, the Cinderella of our political institutions?