Time for the people to decide how devolution goes. Photo: Getty
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Why it's time for a People's Convention to draw up a new constitution for our country

Politicians and ordinary people coming together in town hall meetings up and down the land should shape a new constitution.

After nearly a century of inaction on constitutional change at Westminster, British political parties are now falling over themselves in the race to offer new arrangements for the governance of the United Kingdom.

But what’s entirely lacking is serious thought about how we decide what to do.

It is clear that our current political structures cannot deliver a new constitutional settlement. This is too important to be shunted off to a Cabinet Committee or the modern day equivalent of a smoke-filled room.

When the terms of the Scottish referendum were apparently changed by the three main Westminster parties just days before the vote, with "No" now meaning significant change, and no status quo option on the ballot paper, parliament wasn't consulted. The people certainly weren't consulted.

It appears Gordon Brown made a declaration and the details were worked out, as an FT journalist put it, by David Cameron on the back of a panini wrapper on a train heading north for a panic campaign stop. This comes after more than four years of inaction on House of Lords reform despite all three largest parties promising change in their manifestos.

We cannot go on this way and call ourselves a democracy. The business-as-usual party leaders cannot be trusted to choose the way forward; parliament simply isn't trusted by them or the public – and has long failed to exercise the powers that it could.

Scotland has shown us the way with a huge national political debate that stretched over two years, involved an unprecedented proportion of the public – the enrolment of 97% and turnout of 85% are just markers that don’t get to the depth of the political engagement.

To fix our broken politics what we need to do is create the same level of engagement in a political debate about how we should be governed stretched across the UK.

What we need instead is a People's Constitutional Convention – a meeting of delegates to draw up a new constitution for our country. Politicians and ordinary people coming together in town hall meetings up and down the land to debate, discuss and agree the changes we so urgently need. If it were possible to negotiate Scottish Independence in less than two years it need not take decades to agree a new settlement for the rest of the UK.

More than 200 years ago the Founding Fathers of the United States of America drew up a blueprint for the governance of their newly-independent nation. Nothing less than a project of similar ambition will suffice as we recast the relationship between the government and the governed so that it is fit for the twenty-first century.

The Green MP Caroline Lucas is leading the way on this. She’s launched a petition following her open letter calling on the leaders of the largest parties to deliver real change.

A People’s Convention would draw on a diverse range of talent from across the political spectrum. It would include people from all parties and none, experts and lay people. It would be given a mandate to rethink our democracy, to map out a blueprint for the democratic rebirth of the United Kingdom.

This isn’t pie in the sky thinking – plenty of other countries have gone through similar processes and there is much we can learn from them. The Scottish Constitutional Convention included leaders from Scottish churches and other civic groups. Iceland used a form of jury service to give ordinary people a role. Ireland’s Convention has just concluded its work and the Irish Government has agreed to hold referenda on three of the main issues.

The Green Party of course has ideas for how it should operate and what it should consider which we set out today. But these are suggestions – what we need is a wide and deep national debate, one involving everyone: pensioners and 16-year-olds, carers and the unemployed, women’s groups and those representing ethnic minorities, and yes even bankers (although only in proportion to their positive contribution to the economy, which is small). We haven't seen significant constitutional change in Westminster in nearly a century (the last big change was women getting the vote). There's tremendous pent-up demand for reform. We need the right mechanism to get the right result – one that results in real change and democracy for everyone.

Natalie Bennett is leader of the Green party

Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a former editor of Guardian Weekly.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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