What does a constitutional conversation look like?
Last night Democratise, Involve and the Democratic Society along with the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster hosted an event to talk about how we develop the conversation around democratic reform: a conversation about what a conversation might look like. This wasn’t an attempt to decide what the future constitution might be or even what the issues are, it was purely to think about how we might get any such debate happening everywhere, not just in the corridors of power and politics. It was also just a start to the conversation and by no means was anything decided, there’s a long way to go! This was run as an open space meeting so we asked the 70 people present to propose topics for discussion and then ran two open spaces sessions with five parallel conversations in each session.
Involve’s Sonia Bussu has blogged about her experience participating in the event and added some thoughts on starting to pull together an action plan too, as has Diane Beddoes from Dialogue by Design, who raises three important questions:
- How do we get better at using crises… as positive instigators of change?
- How do we overcome cyncism of ‘celebreties’ and should we invite them over and show them the resources and knowledge that exists and wants change too?
- Is it possible (and do we need) a timeframe for a project like this?
Ultimately she asks, “can a citizen-led Constitutional Convention help to build energy and interest in wider democratic reform and how can we help it to do this?” Anthony Zacharzewski from the Democratic Society has blogged on his reflections too.
I spent the time moving around the different groups and listening – like a bee going from flower to flower, collecting pollen, as it was described! Occasionally prompting and asking the odd question, I was trying to make sense of what was being said. The themes below aren’t comprehensive but they are based on what I heard from the participants and so I’ve documented them here as a starting point for the next stage of the conversation.
Power creates a closed shop that we need to overcome
Power is a closed shop that discourages or even actively prevents ‘ordinary’ people from getting involved. If we don’t understand the process, don’t feel we know the ‘rules’ and are taught to believe that these things are best left to the ‘experts and the politicians’ we become disenfranchised… disengaged. Destroying this myth and helping people to see that there is real value in taking part will be critical to any conversation gaining momentum, scale and credibility.
Tap into grounded conversations
Conversations, the participants felt, are best started locally on a small scale. We need to go where conversations are already happening, tapping into local groups and people who already have a connection. But how do we introduce sometimes abstract and often complex topics relating to national futures, democracy and even constitutional matters into these local conversations in ways that people will adopt them, engage with them and perpetuate the debate?
Energy and intent will create confidence and connection
We need people to believe that this is a conversation for them. For everybody. But if we want people to get involved then we need to do things that give the process legitimacy, credibility and purpose. We need to demonstrate a level of energy, commitment and intent that will motivate people to engage with the conversation. A big part of increasing engagement will be developing good resources and educational material too.
Retain our authentic voice
A second challenge is how do we record these myriad conversations and aggregate the thoughts, challenges and ideas that are being expressed in a way that retains the authenticity of those local voices? This also goes to an important issue of making sure that this is a genuinely national conversation not one centred in the corridors of power; we need to hear what people right across the UK are saying.
The process has to be inclusive
This isn’t an ‘us and them’ project, it’s not about demonising politicians and reifying citizens. It’s also note about creating a talking shop for the usual suspects, we need to find ways to reach out to people who feel (and are) disconnected, hard to reach and hard to find. The conversation must have the space and in fact see it as a necessity to involve everyone. We just need to do this in ways that disperse power across the network, rather than perpetuating current power and privilege, as someone said, ‘so the conversation isn’t rail-roaded by the politicians’. This comes back to the previous point about sharing conversations and retaining authenticity.
Leadership is about ideas before personalities
Whilst we can see that key, charismatic individuals can galvanise a campaign and can create levels of trust and support, it’s the ideas that matter most. If our ideas don’t resonate with the wider public, they won’t connect regardless of who the people are. Barrack Obama and Alex Salmond are examples of political personalities but if you unpack there popularity it’s as much about the ideas they bring as the person individually… Obama’s ‘yes we can!’ is much more than one person, it suggests partnership, connection and a shared future. But, the leadership can be a negative and leaders a liability (look at the current trust ratings for our political leaders). We need to focus on ideas, not personalities but also recognise that any figureheads in a national conversation must be chosen carefully, seen as a dynamic mix and a campaign or process not built around a single ‘personality’.