A second chamber rooted in deliberative democracy will improve Scotland’s politics

By Will Stringer

Imagine a future for Scotland’s democracy where the 99% of us who are usually locked out of political decision making are hardwired in. A future where there are multiple, local, national and international entry points for you to get involved, hear from experts, share your ideas and make change. This change isn’t just a ‘nice to have’, it’s what’s required to meet the multiple complex and profound challenges that are facing us globally today. Challenges such as the climate crisis, technological change and forced migration. For too long, democracy has been eroded by vested interests with the money to keep power in the hands of the few. That needs to change. 

This is a future that Scotland has the opportunity to lead the way on, breaking new ground on how citizens are involved in decision making. 

So, what does that look like? 

Democratic innovations take multiple forms, from deliberative mini-publics through to participatory budgeting. In this article, we’ll be focusing on two related forms of deliberative democracy; one that you may be familiar with, citizens’ assemblies, and the second, a House of Citizen for Scotland.

Deliberative democracy

First, let’s get to grips with the jargon. Deliberative democracy is where people come together to hear from multiple points of view. People are enabled to discuss issues and to find common ground to produce outcomes e.g., proposals/recommendations. There are many ways of doing deliberative democracy, and methods and tools are being developed all the time. One of the most notable examples that we have are citizens’ assemblies.

Citizens’ assemblies

Broadly speaking, citizens’ assemblies bring together a representative bunch of people, selected by lottery, to decide how we should live together. In Scotland we have had two national assemblies, the Citizens’ Assembly on the future of Scotland and the Climate Assembly. In both cases, around 100 people representing the diversity of Scotland were brought together to hear from experts, discuss amongst themselves, and draw up recommendations for the Scottish parliament. Citizens’ assemblies are powerful for many reasons, one of the most notable is their ability to reduce the powerful vested interests that often exert undue influence on policy outcomes. This was recognised by the citizens’ assembly on the future of Scotland, where one of their key recommendations was to create a citizen-led second chamber in Scotland – a House of Citizens.

In Scotland we currently have a commitment from the SNP for an annualised citizens’ assembly, with a range of issues already identified as contenders for discussion over the coming years. This is a welcome step in the right direction, national citizens’ assemblies can break political deadlocks and allow citizens to listen to expertise and create solutions. If that’s the case you may be wondering why the citizens’ assembly on the future of Scotland called for a House of Citizens, and why is it of such value?

A House of Citizens

A House of Citizens would have four key characteristics: 

  1. Like a citizens’ assembly, members would represent the diversity from across Scotland. Hardwiring in the 99% of us usually locked out of political decision making
  1. The members would serve 1-2 year terms. This prevents creating ‘just another political elite’, and reduces the influence of lobbying. 
  1. The people who understand the challenges faced by ordinary people are ordinary people. That’s why ordinary citizens as members of the House of Citizens would decide on topics for citizens’ assemblies across the country; this decentralises power and ensures local democracy is a cornerstone of the House of Citizens.
  1. Members would select legislation to be scrutinised, so as to improve the quality of legislation that comes from Scottish parliament. Politicians can’t continue to mark their own homework, we need to improve the decisions that Scottish parliament takes that affects all of our lives.

Beyond the value already described, a House of Citizens hardwires deliberation into Scotland’s parliament and strengthens the civic muscle of Scotland. Imagine being able to go to your local pub, and be served by someone who had experience in the House of Citizens?

Of course, the House of Citizens doesn’t act in isolation – and reform of democracy needs to happen at a local, national and international level if we are to address the democratic crisis. But a House of Citizens is something that can begin to be put into action now, shaping the future of Scotland’s democracy as a global leader in citizen participation.

The full proposals for a Scottish House of Citizens – by the Sortition Foundation, Electoral Reform Society Scotland, Common Weal and RSA – can be read here.

About the author

This is a guest post by Will Stringer, Campaign Coordinator for the Sortition Foundation, which advocates for deliberative democracy. Opinions expressed in guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Upgrade Holyrood.

Scottish Green 2021 manifesto launch: what have the party pledged on improving democracy?

Image by Michaela Wenzler from Pixabay

Scottish Green Co-Leaders Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater launched the party’s 2021 election manifesto today (Wednesday 14 April). The manifesto, entitled Our Common Future, is largely what was expected from the Scottish Green party: environmental commitments, a restructuring of the economy and a commitment to Scottish independence.

In 2016 the party won six MSPs (now down to five due to the resignation of Andy Wightman) and hope to win even more in May. Polling suggests they could do just that and win a record share of MSPs at Holyrood.

Upgrade Holyrood is committed to improving democracy in Scotland. So what have the Scottish Greens pledged on strengthening Scotland’s democracy?

In terms of proposed democratic reforms, the Greens have focused on local improvements. The Greens have a section on “Local Democracy and Communities” where they highlight three achievements in the past five years. They say they:

~Won over £500 million additional investment in local services, from swimming pools to schools

~Introduced new powers for councils to raise local levies on tourism and workplace car parking

~Championed participatory democracy, including Scotland’s citizens assemblies

Scottish Greens Manifesto (2021)

The manifesto commits the party to five key pledges on local democracy and communities. These are:

We believe in Local Government. It plays a critical role in all of our lives, which is why we have focused on empowering and properly funding it over the last Parliament. We believe that rebuilding local democracy and empowering local government to meet the needs of the public should be at the heart of a green recovery.

The Scottish Greens will:

• Deliver empowered, genuinely local councils. We will reverse the 50-year decline in the status of local government by backing widespread decentralisation of powers to local government and addressing the massive disparity between Scotland and other European countries, with Scottish councils ten times bigger than the European average.

• Oppose Ministerial vetoes over local decisions. Local councils are best placed to determine what’s needed in their areas, but across a huge range of policies, the Scottish Government has legislated to give Ministers a veto. We will always presume that such provisions should be removed from laws unless it can be demonstrated they are absolutely necessary and proportionate.

• Promote more diverse local representation. Women, people of colour, disabled people, trans people, and others with protected characteristics remain under-represented in local government. We will work to remove barriers to their full participation. We will increase the annual allowance for councillors, so it enables everyone to make it a full-time role. We will clarify ambiguity around maternity and parental leave, and extend access to public office funding across all protected characteristics.

• Put local, democratic ownership at the heart of a Green Recovery. We will back Councils to be able to own vital green infrastructure including public transport and local energy companies.

• Stimulate participatory democracy at local level. Greens pioneered participatory decision-making in Scotland, both locally and nationally. We will work to formalise citizens assemblies on an ongoing basis, locally and nationally, and introduce statutory duties on Councils and the wider public sector to support and enable new levels of local governance.

Scottish Green Party (2021)

Upgrade Holyrood supports reforms to Scottish Local government. Devolution shouldn’t just go from London to Edinburgh; it should flow from Edinburgh to local authorities and go directly in the hands of communities. Ballot Box Scotland has produced some excellent analysis and possible solutions for reforming local government that would restructure it in a way that brings government closer to constituents. The Greens’ proposals echo a lot of that. Their recognition that Scottish councils are abnormally large and that powers are far from citizens are most welcome.

The Scottish Green Party’s ambition to improve diversity in local government is welcome, with their plan to increase councillor remuneration something worth considering.

The party also beats the drum for participatory democracy – and not just on the local level. Local citizens’ assemblies have increased in occurrence in recent years. They have been used in Canada to explore options for electoral reform and are proposed by Make Votes Matter as a tool to find agreement for a fair alternative to First Past the Post at Westminster. The first citizens assembly in Scotland published its report in January 2021, outlining 60 proposals for improving how Scotland is run. And in December 2020, a report put together by the Sortition Foundation, the Electoral Reform Society, RSA and Common Weal outlined what a permanent second chamber in the form of a citizens assembly could look like in Scotland. More local citizens assemblies could well be used in future alongside traditional representative democracy.

However, while the Scottish Greens’ manifesto discusses ways to improve local democracy and government, and it does make clear the party’s position Scottish independence and the EU, it doesn’t address ways to improve democratic processes and mechanisms in the Scottish Parliament.

Better Proportional Representation

The Scottish Greens support the Single Transferable Vote (STV) and included a commitment to replacing the Additional Member System at Holyrood with STV in their 2016 manifesto. The Scottish Parliament’s voting system does not get a mention in the 2021 manifesto although it is assumed the Greens do still support it.

Ending dual mandates

The Greens’ new manifesto doesn’t say anything about dual mandates, which have been a topic for discussion with Douglas Ross, Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey all planning on holding dual mandates if elected to the Scottish Parliament in May.

Other improvements to Holyrood democracy

It is also worth noting that the party’s manifesto says nothing in preventing MSPs from holding second jobs, as well as nothing on making parliamentary terms four years, as supported by Upgrade Holyrood, nor does it say anything on creating a permanent hybrid parliament. Again it is worth saying that just because these policies aren’t in the manifesto doesn’t mean that the party doesn’t support them.

Overall, devolving power closer to communities is a good thing and some of the party’s policies will do just that. The Green party’s proposals for more participatory democracy are also welcome as a way to innovate the mechanics of representative democracy in Scotland.

One main manifesto down, four to go.

Notes:

The Scottish Greens’ manifesto (Our Common Future) was launched on Wednesaday 14 April 2021 by Co-Leaders Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater. The full document can be accessed here.